PEN15 Season 2 Review: Endearingly Honest Hormonal Pre-Teen Cringe

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PEN15 Season 2 Review: Endearingly Honest Hormonal Pre-Teen Cringe

Your pre-teen years were probably the biggest flop era of your life. Braces, acne and overall awkwardness are not really life experiences you might be nostalgic for. And yet we continue to see in PEN15 season 2 that somehow the worst memories of everyone woman’s life can be turned into a continuously entertaining trip down memory lane. Warning, spoilers may lie ahead–watch the show first!

Anyone who got hooked on the Hulu show’s first season will remember connecting with the endearingly cringeworthy moments of choosing your first AIM screen name, fighting over which Spice Girl you were going to be, and attending your first school dance (Nelly soundtrack required). Much of the same continues in season 2, with an added dose of hormones to send Maya and Anna’s life into a whirlwind both in school and at home.

The season focuses a lot on Maya’s new crush on Brandt, a boy who used to bully her before feeling both the girls up in a storage closet during the finale of season 1. While getting to second base wasn’t necessarily a part of every woman’s 7th grade year, crushing on your bully was an unfortunately relatable narrative. Even the smallest morsels of attention get hyper-focus in middle school, which in PEN15 results in Maya delving into the classic obsessive, pre-teen girl stalker-mode (Welcome to the Dollhouse, we see you). I don’t know why we all seem to go through a stalker phase, but it was portrayed in a realistic way that is guaranteed to make you cringe and may also bring up some unfortunate repressed memories.

Anna and Maya attend a pool party in the season 2 premiere
Source: Hulu, Header Source: Hulu, PEN15 Twitter

One thing that stood out in PEN15 season 2 compared to season 1 was the anger and rage that inevitably comes along with becoming a hormonal teenager. The girls both have challenging issues with their family, namely Anna feeling a disconnect with her mother as her parents’ fighting escalates. Mother-daughter relationships are known to reach tense moments during this time in a girl’s life. The narrative of Anna feeling like her mom is causing all the family’s problems is one that many women often look back on in adulthood with regret, realizing that their teen rage was insensitive and often misdirected towards their mom. Anyone who had a tumultuous relationship with their mom during their teen years might get in their feels watching Anna’s rebellion, which seems to really hurt her mother throughout the season. One situation with her yelling, “I’m sorry I’m just HORMONAL!”

Maya joins the wrestling team to get closer to her crush Brandt
Source: Hulu

A solid foundation of the characters and tone of the show was laid in season 1 of PEN15, where we understood the world of Y2K coming of age. In season 2, we get to see the characters get into even more shenanigans and witness how they interact with the world around them. While it was fun to watch Anna and Maya get into a variety of situations, the choice of setting for each episode seemed to be more specific to the characters than attempting to represent a blanket of early 2000s pre-teen experiences. The girls joining the wrestling team was the most unrelatable stretch of the season, which comes about when Maya wants to get closer to Brandt. Anna completely latching onto the team, and then later doing the same thing with becoming a witch, and then the same with the school play did get a little redundant after a while. Though it seemed to be her character “searching” for where she belonged, it did make these situations feel a bit predictable.

Joining the wrestling team or the school play may not have been every pre-teen girl’s experience, but PEN15 did include an episode on the inevitable witchy period we all seem to have gone through during childhood. Anna and Maya’s witchy moment, spurred from finding a random business card tucked into a tree, was one of the most entertaining journeys to go on during season 2. The childhood imagination planted into the bodies of impending young adults is presented gracefully throughout the series, and this episode displays the perfect combination of both.

Friendships are tested when Anna and Maya attend Maura's sleepover in season 2
Source: Hulu

There’s another nod to witchiness in the sleepover episode, with “Crack an egg on your head, let the yolk drip down,” being chanted–truly a sleepover classic. The episode revolved around pre-teen girls’ obsession with secrets and gossip, where the phrase “don’t tell anybody” gets chucked out the window the second the information becomes relevant. Alliances are formed and destroyed, friends are ostracized at the drop of a hat and forced to regain the respect of the group, and judgement is king in trying to figure out how to fit in. And no middle school sleepover would be complete without someone whimpering into the phone, “Mom, can you come pick me up?”

It’s disappointing that PEN15 season 2 was only seven episodes, but fans will be happy to hear that there’s actually a part two of season 2. The release date has been delayed due to the pandemic shutdown, but filming has since resumed. The show’s stars and creators Maya Erskine and Anna Kronkle hope to release part two by September 2021 (and also hope for a season 3 beyond that).

Anna and Maya judge their peers from across the pool in PEN15 season 2
Source: Hulu

Watching the endearingly cringey characters grow over time will never get old, especially when care is given to illustrating the differences between their experiences. Anna seems to be maturing slightly faster than Maya, and I’m curious to see how they further address this, especially with big changes in Anna’s family situation. I’d also like to see more discussion on body image, which hasn’t really been brought up yet in either season. Erskine and Kronkle both fit into aspirational body types for pre-teens, so that’s probably the biggest thing I would say the show has missed the mark on so far (and may never be able to touch on in a realistic way). I’m also surprised at the lack of cultural references in regards to pop stars. How have we gotten this far without Britney Spears, BSB or *NSYNC coming into the conversation? There was an *NSYNC song featured in an episode of season 1, but you would think we’d hear more about these pop sensations that were pretty much the only thing pre-teen girls were talking about in the year 2000. 

Characters Anna and Maya as pre-teens in PEN15
Source: Hulu

Overall, missteps in PEN15 season 2 are few and far between. The girls are going through changes and new experiences that are fun to watch, albeit through gritted teeth. Somehow this series manages to always bring heart to the storylines in between each of the laughable moments, forcing you to feel for the girls in spite of their obvious detours in good judgement. In a world where Gen Z has taken up a rose-colored affinity for the Y2K era, it’s nice to see an accurate representation of just how ugly being a 2000s pre-teen was. I definitely feel seen watching my childhood captured and preserved up on screen, and look forward to the rest of Anna and Maya’s AIM-filled, teen angsty, boy-obsessed adventures.

What did you think of PEN15 season 2? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!

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