‘PEN15’ Is No Longer an Underdog, and That Feels Weird

‘PEN15’ Is No Longer an Underdog, and That Feels Weird

The girls are back — but they’ve changed. At least, that’s what everyone in class is saying about Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone.

At the start of the sophomore season of “PEN15,” Hulu’s painfully visceral, wildly funny comedy about the traumas and exhilarations of middle school, everyone is talking about what Maya and Anna did in the janitor’s closet at the school dance at the end of Season 1. When the slut-shaming begins, the show’s 13-year old protagonists — played by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, its 33-year old creators (alongside Sam Zvibleman) — begin to question whether they’re suddenly different.

In reality, in the new season, premiering Friday, everything seems to be changing. The seesawing between naïve, gleeful girlhood and teenage growing pains is even more jarring than it was last season.

“I don’t think we consciously tried to make it darker,” Erskine said recently over Zoom. “It was just more like, OK, we know that these girls are going to stay in seventh grade forever, but that they have to evolve.”

This season is broken into two seven-episode installments. The second half was originally intended to come out six months after the first, but the pandemic interrupted production; the second batch of episodes will likely debut a year from now, Konkle said. She and Erskine finished editing the first half over Zoom during quarantine.

For Konkle, in particular, the last year has been an especially raw, surreal experience: As she was shooting the second season, her father died from lung cancer. She was with him at the end, then flew back to set and stepped back into her teenage self and acted with her TV dad (Taylor Nichols).

“It’s been a wonderful time of reflection,” Konkle said. “It’s also been a really painful time.”

Over Zoom, Erskine and Konkle can sound like kinder versions of their characters, offering effusive love and support without the angsty middle-school bickering.

“We’ve talked about this, but you’re my muse,” Konkle said to Erskine at one point. “I was never like, ‘I’m going to write comedy.’ I wanted to write things for you that were sad and funny because you’re so inspiring to me.”

From their respective homes in Los Angeles, the two women spoke about the new season, internalizing misogyny and their middle-school crushes. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The first season was a breakout success for you both. What have the last couple years meant for your real-life friendship?

MAYA ERSKINE We didn’t get to grow together as 13-year olds, but I feel like we had a second adolescence together now, truly. I’m thinking of us meeting in college, to now — that is another adolescence.


ERSKINE I never thought of that. Yeah, that just hit me. [Imitates mind being blown.]

Did the acclaim change your mind set going into the second season?

KONKLE Maya and I met as perfectionists and also, ironically, spent so much time in this industry failing. I quit so many times — which is good, I needed to fail a lot. I was so afraid of that and it really crippled my work for a long time. When “PEN15” rolled around, I was truly in a mind-set of: “Come and get me, failure. Hate me. Hate the show. We love it.” But when there was success for it, that kind of messed up my mentality because I was pretty content, and felt like I had an understanding of myself and my creative process as an underdog.

So that was hard going into the second season: People liked it. How did that happen? And what does that mean about your work now?

ERSKINE There’s something about working with Anna and Sam [Zvibleman], my two friends who I admire so much. If I did this show by myself and it became a huge hit, I think I wouldn’t know how to deal with that.

This season both girls have poignant mother-daughter moments. Maya, yours is a tender conversation when you and your mom are in the bathtub, and it’s with your actual mother, Mutsuko Erskine. How real was that scene?

ERSKINE The bath scene was wild for me because that looks like my bath growing up. My relationship with my mom — I was insanely close to her, and as soon as I was starting to turn into a woman, we started to fight more and I felt like I was losing her love, in my mind. Because I was like, I’m becoming a woman, so now I’m not your little girl.

But the one place where we would come to each other was in the bath. Every time we came into the bath, we would talk, and it was our most mature conversations because it was calm and we really listened to each other. I’ll get emotional about it now, but that’s where we would talk about anything. And it’s such a cultural experience. Other people, when I would tell them, “Yeah, I took baths with my mom,” they’d be like, “Ew, that’s so weird.” And I’m like: “But it’s not. It’s normal.” So to show that and normalize it in our show is very special to me.

Anna’s moment comes when she shows this sudden empathy toward her mom amid her parents’ divorce. Does that dynamic come from something real in your adolescence?

KONKLE It meant a lot to us in this season, that arc. That pro-dad, anti-mom, anti-yourself — the sexism that you’re taught.

ERSKINE We’re slut-shamed in the beginning and instantly start to hate ourselves, hate our vaginas and then hate women. So we wanted to show that reflection in our mothers, how you sort of turn against your mother at that age because you’re kind of turning against yourself — your mom is a reflection of yourself. So I feel like that scene is something that you would be saying now, Anna, to your mom. It’s sort of like a love letter, a rewrite apology.

KONKLE That scene was probably a revelation I had in therapy in my 20s. Like, “Oh, I blamed everything on my mom.” Because my parents’ relationship was so public to me that I was constantly choosing sides and constantly trying to decide who was right and who was wrong, and I pretty much always blamed my mom. [In the show] I get to acknowledge that my dad is an [expletive] sometimes. [Laughs.]

This season starts with Maya’s obsession over Brandt (Jonah Beres), whose treatment of her is really striking in his manipulation. We see his consciousness of his power at such a young age — that’s darker than his just being a mean boy who internalizes toxic masculinity.

KONKLE Yeah, that he’s not just a cog in the wheel, and he’s making a conscious choice. We talked a lot about motivating the gaslighting that’s happening in the sense that he’s like, “Hey, cutie.” And then someone else walks in, and because she’s on a lower status, he’s like: “What are you doing? Get away.” We both related to that growing up, sadly.

ERSKINE I didn’t really get the private, “Hey, cutie,” even. It was just all rejection. [Both laugh.] So I don’t fully relate.

KONKLE You never got a guy that flirted with you or was nicer to you or whatever when other people weren’t around? I definitely got that.

ERSKINE There was a popular boy who car pooled with me for like two days. And he was flirting with me in car pool, and then as soon as we got out of the car, he walked so fast ahead of me. And that fast-walk was devastating, like he didn’t want to be seen with me. It was so devastating. It’s those small things.

Like when, in the new season, Brandt switches his place in line to be further away from Maya. Yet she ends up only wanting him more.

ERSKINE This is something that didn’t feel totally autobiographical, but was exciting to see how a girl gets labeled “crazy” so easily. And we lean into it a bit — the exaggeration of her stalking him and all these things. But he’s leading her on so heavily in these moments, pulling and pushing.

KONKLE Of course you’re going to put hair in his locker!

ERSKINE Of course I’m going to put hair in his locker! Of course I’m going to follow him around. He just said he loves me, we just have to be alone. [Both laugh.] I wrote a boy’s name on chalkboards everywhere in middle school, and it got reported to the principal. [The boy] was like, “I think someone’s stalking me,” and they found out it was me.

KONKLE I definitely knew when certain people were going to be in the hallway. I definitely went around that corner an extra 10 times when they were there. “I need to go back to the water fountain. Oh, is my pencil on the floor?”

Brandt’s actions contrast so much with someone like Sam’s. The actor who plays Sam, Taj Cross, is so good that he makes your heart flutter even though he’s a teenager. Is that weird?

[Erskine and Konkle both laugh.]

KONKLE You’re not the first person to say that.

ERSKINE I’ve had so many adult women where they’re like, “I find myself having a crush on Sam.” He represents the guy I should’ve been with at that age.

Was there ever someone you had that feeling or relationship with in middle school?

KONKLE There was that guy who got away at that age. My friends still will be like, why did you like him? I’ll be like, what’s he doing now?

I remember when I got to borrow his hat for the day. We never were together — it never happened. But it gave me that feeling because he looked in my eyes! It was romantic. Like, it was adult romance.

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