PEN15’s Sophomore Season Showcases Being A Gay Tween In The Early 2000s And The Struggle Of Hiding Yourself
Being able to binge watch a television show is a double-edged sword. Yes, you get to blast through all episodes and aren’t forced to dwell on sitcom fodder or unnecessary cliffhangers, but you can finish an entire season of your new favorite series in one day and have to wait an entire year for the next sequence. One Hulu show, PEN15 (honoring a schoolyard gag in the ‘90s to get “penis” drawn on you in marker), premiered in early 2019 and just aired their second season a few days ago. The series follows two “tweens” Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) navigating life in the year 2000. Erskine and Konkle are credited as writers and creators. To add more credit to their resume and despite being in their thirties, the pair star as exaggerated versions of themselves as the main characters. The rest of the cast, sans parents, are portrayed by age-appropriate actors.
If you’re a gay Millennial, you may already be familiar with the series. While we are eavesdropping on the lives of two “tween” girls, the content is already super gay on paper: Grade school crushes, going into AOL chatrooms pretending to be someone you’re not, and being obsessed with ‘90s heartthrobs and everything Spice Girls. The girls are dorky, always trying to be themselves but often give into peer pressure to be cool – anyone may be able to relate to who grew up in the 2000s. The creators have been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in 2019, which is now an understatement with the latest phenomenal season. While Best Actress nominations are so obviously set for in the future of Erskine and Konkle, they also gave a nod to their gay fan base in the show’s sophomore run that hits a little too close to home.
First, there’s that grade school puppy love pretty much everyone experiences. During an episode titled Sleepover, we witness how eighth grade girls and boys have sleepovers. The girls get into drama and other irresponsible shenanigans, while the boys talk about girls and watch some grainy porn. Within the series is a character named Gabe (Dylan Gage) who has given subtle hints on his budding sexuality throughout the episodes. In Sleepover, his feelings of attraction to his best friend and semi-antagonist Sam (Taj Cross), who has catfished Maya over instant messenger and has a crush on her. Gabe innocently visions himself sleeping *closer* to Sam after their porn viewing. It’s not ruthless, tasteless or offensive, but simply states how much it sucks being gay and having to hide in the closet – and knowing damn well the boy you have a crush on isn’t interested in you. Gabe’s character gets more screen time as the episodes pass and he develops into a dynamic, relatable closeted tween.
As expected, one constant plot in PEN15 is the mostly-failed romances of Maya and Anna. Like any tween, or heck even adult, the girls tend to fall in love with anyone who gives them a slight amount of attention. After having a “threesome” (they got their boobs grabbed) in the first season, and only to be embarrassingly “dumped” later, the girls journey to see who they’ll love next – for real this time.
Eventually, they get jobs in the school play which opens them up to more time spent with some of the male cast. Maya scores the lead in the play opposite Gabe and with her suggestion, they start dating. This storyline causes some awkward rift between Gabe and Sam. Gabe clearly has no feelings for Maya – while Sam has a long-term crush on her – and Gabe eventually breaks things off with her after refusing to kiss her many times. As a viewer, we understand his curiosity and those lingering glances of desire he has for his best friend. It’s upsetting to watch: Gabe genuinely likes his friendship with Maya and you’ll desperately want him to tell her – but again, this is the year 2000 and they are thirteen-years-old(ish). He can’t admit his sexuality and his heartbreak of his feelings for Sam and the ruined friendship he has with Maya is going to lead even the coldest soul to shed a tear.
Another obviously flamboyantly-gay-without-stating-he’s-gay-because-he’s-thirteen character is Ian (Ivan Mallon). Ian is the flamer who is an aspiring actor and drama club king. He’s friends with the girls and is blunt, which makes him appear to be bratty and spoiled. He’s harmless, but due to his flamboyancy he’s bullied into being voted “Biggest Drama Queen” by his peers for the school yearbook. Gabe, who enjoys Ian, has pause with everyone throwing Ian under the bus to be slapped with an ignorant label, he knows it will hurt Ian’s feelings. The kids consider their gay peer being the Drama Queen because it’s fitting with the stereotype. Gabe’s guilt makes him believe since he’s gay, he should also get the title. But, it goes to Ian – who keeps getting the short end of the stick. It’s another moment that showcases how kids in the “glass closet” couldn’t win either. Being a gay tween in 2000 wasn’t fun. Erksine and Konkle know this and are bold with their delivery. While it is what it is, at least the ladies embrace our pain and express our struggle.
Trust, the gay storyline isn’t the only reason why anyone interested in this genre should be watching PEN15. With a bit of build up on it’s center cast, we get to explore more of life in eighth grade. Maya and Anna are eventually pinned against one another by a troublesome, new “best friend” Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) who comes equipped with lie after lie and introduces the friends to swear words. Sami Rappoport’s Becca is a knee-slapping scene stealer every time she’s seen. Anna ventures into dating territory herself, with her own struggles, and tries drinking alcohol to impress a boy she likes. Maya is embarrassed when her classmates call her out for clogging a toilet with her self-made period pad. Adding to Anna’s compelling storyline is the divorce of her parents, which shines in a stellar acting performance by her bohemian mother (Melora Walters) who should absolutely not be overlooked within the extremely brilliant cast.
PEN15 is heartwarming, heartbreaking, and oozes with nostalgia that will bring you back to times you want to cherish and forget all in the same breath. Erskine and Konkle have crafted a masterpiece that slips us directly back into the year 2000 – and they make sure we never want to leave. No word on when the series will return, but without question, should definitely be renewed. The story has just begun.
Check out PEN15’s second season trailer below and don’t forget to check it out on Hulu!
Writer’s Note: This is the opinion of one Instinct Magazine contributor and does not reflect the views of Instinct Magazine itself or fellow contributors.