The long wait for more 'Pen15' is over and this animation special does not disappoint. Achingly sad and hilarious.
- 👯♀️ It is good to have Maya and Anna back again.
- 👯♀️ Little details about vacations as a teen balance out the mystical side.
- 👯♀️ Hilarious and heartbreaking.
- 👯♀️ A good bridging episode and COVID workaround.
- 👯♀️ The references to the year 2000.
- 👯♀️ Now we have to wait for the second half of Season 2.
This post contains spoilers for Pen15 "Jacuzzi."
The last time viewers saw Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) it should've been a triumphant moment. The success of their school play was eclipsed by breakups and family-related misery. With the roof down in Anna’s dad’s convertible — an emblem of his mid-life crisis and divorce — the last Pen15 episode to air in 2020 has a strong melancholic air. Of course, this was not originally intended as a place to pause and was a result of production shutting down due to the pandemic. Konkle and Erskine were in the midst of prepping a standalone 40-minute episode that would incorporate prosthetics to bring their vision to life. Adapting to COVID-19 protocols has required many creative pivots, which include transitioning from live-action to animation for this one-off episode. The wonderful, weird (and painful) world of adolescence is just as acute in this format, and “Jacuzzi” is a strong reminder of this show’s power to capture the contradictions of being 13.
“I wonder if it’s like different in Florida,” Anna queries about the full moon they can see with the roof of her dad’s car down, and the action seamlessly transitions into the animation. This scene picks up where we left off last year and Anna’s looming choice regarding the parent she wants to live with is momentarily put on the backburner. The drive to Florida involves Maya and Anna sleeping their way through beautiful sunrises and messing around with a camcorder (it is the year 2000). The animation element removes the surreal visuals of adult Anna and Maya playing versions of their teen selves surrounded by an actual teen cast, but this episode still embraces its off-kilter core.
The BFFs are thrilled to be on vacation even if pesky things like thunder prevent them from using the pool. “No one is letting us start our good time,” Anna yells at her dad and it is one disappointment after the next. Inflated drinks prices in the tourist town mean they burn through some of the cash Curtis Kone (Taylor Nichols) has given them to last the duration. When they spot a caricaturist on the pier, it feels like the fun kind of reminder they will cherish about this time away from the burdens of regular life. Instead, the inherent nature of a caricature picks away at their insecurities as the exaggerated aspects reinforce self-loathing. For Anna, it is her nose, whereas Maya’s face shape and upper lip hair are the targets. In the first-ever episode, Maya is branded the UGIS (Ugliest Girl in School) and this illustration whips her back to this devastating insult. One reason why the writing is so effective — this episode is written and directed by Konkle — is that it taps into mean comments we all carry around. No matter if middle school was 20 years ago or less than a year, it is easy to get sucked back into a state of self-doubt.
Florida is meant to represent freedom from their sadness, but when Anna’s mom calls she is quick to make passive-aggressive comments while also telling the girls to avoid men who say they are cops (they might be murderers). Danger lurks at every corner whether thunderstorms, poisonous jellyfish, or the caricaturist. The latter’s insidious quality comes from how this drawing turns the teens' perceived “flaws” into a reality, or at least their reality. They hide the drawing in a suitcase but its power has taken hold, so when they wake up after a restless night’s sleep they both appear as they did in the illustration. “Sorry it’s not fun,” Anna tells Maya while the storm raged the night before and while her bestie tries to reassure her she is having a good time, sadness hangs over them.
Sensing their misery, Anna’s dad tries his best to cheer them up but it is a tall task combating the body insecurities of a teenager. He offers to pay for hair braids and they try to get a tan using oil, but instead, burn the hell out of their skin — the flashbacks this episode is giving me are endless. At this point, the entire trip is a total bust and it seems like nothing can go right. The hotel jacuzzi marks the turning point when two teen boys join them and the wait has been worth it. Awkward conversation follows before the boys call Maya and Anna cute and invite them to an under-16 club night. This isn’t enough to switch their faces back to normal but it does improve their mood immensely. Mucking around outside Freddie and Ralph’s hotel room quickly brings them crashing back to earth when a creepy adult answers the door. They rationalize this as a mistake and think they can rectify the issue at the club.
Anna’s dad has hit up a flirtation with their waitress and when she reassures him that this town is safe enough for two teen girls he lets them go explore the town. The emotional roller coaster is far from over as Freddie and Ralph aren’t there, but they strike up a conversation with another boy. It is hard to escape insecurities at a teen venue and the salt is poured into the fresh wound when a pair of attractive older girls berate their friend for his mean comments while also making the situation worse. “They’re not that bad,” one quips and this level of passive-aggressive power play feels purposeful. Dancing around these social dynamics leads to the older girls welcoming Maya and Anna, which includes buying them non-alcoholic drinks and sharing their limited booze. Part of this is for their own older kid amusement, however, they don’t go down the extreme humiliation route. One quips about them being like "the little sisters I never had" — cue Maya and Anna singing the Sister, Sister theme. They encourage the drinking that ends up with a wasted and sad Anna, but I was worried they were going to be the type of older teens who mercilessly destroy their younger counterparts. Instead, they do take advantage of their one interaction with this older creepy guy to get more booze but they don't ditch them as soon as they have got what they want. It is a nuanced portrayal and is indicative of Pen15’s ability to paint familiar scenarios with a twist.
“I am ugly,” Anna says to no one but her drunk self in the bathroom and this all-too-familiar moment makes my heart ache for this character (and for the teen version of myself). Meanwhile, Maya is doing the worm out on the dance floor and she hasn’t grasped quite how wasted her bestie is. When she realizes it is past their curfew, she semi carries the inebriated Anna home while dodging perceived and real dangers — the moment Anna lies down on the ground is also highly relatable. This episode does a good job of blurring the lines here and never confirms exactly what the 30-something-year-old dude is doing scoping an under-16 nightclub.
Maya comes up with an unbelievable story about why Anna is so drunk, but to her credit, she never deviates from the idea that Anna drank a few sips of booze that belonged to younger kids than them. Anna can neither corroborate nor deny what Maya claims happened and after ringing the police to report the crime — Curtis is told by the police that you cannot get alcohol poisoning from a few sips — he lays out the disappointed dad act, which he repeats when Anna is sober. He isn’t a monster though and he understands they are upset because the boys they were flirting with lied to them. In an attempt to bring some joy to the trip he says they can stay in the pool until four.
After a vacation of disappointments, they do get a happy ending when they spot Ralph and Freddie as they are leaving. The boys explain they live nearby (hence the wrong hotel room) and were grounded for using the jacuzzi. Maya and Anna gift the caricature to the boys and get their AIM screen names, which they quickly lose in the flutter of the wind. Victory is the act of getting those details rather than contacting them in the future.
No one does poignant mixed with comedy better than Erskine, Konkle, and co-creator Sam Zvibleman. The first half of Season 2 is deservedly nominated for Best Comedy Series at next month’s Emmys, and this trip to Florida is the perfect bridge to the seven episodes remaining in this sophomore outing. For everything that did go wrong, what the girls are going to remember is a highlight reel of the best moments. Yes, those pronounced insecure feelings about moon faces made of cheese and big noses might strike at any time, but ending on a high will propel these teens all the way back home. Memories have been made and there is also the physical evidence of fun (and some parent-induced embarrassment) on the camcorder. The deviation from live-action doesn’t strip away any of the emotion and while I would love to see the original vision, this animated special taps into Pen15’s ability to make you laugh while sending a shiver up your spine about the past.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.
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