“Pool” sets up a variety of relationship dynamics, both at home and at school, which the next six episodes steadily explore for Maya and Anna. Maya’s fixation on Brandt shapes practically everything. Second episode “Wrestle” starts strong with an opener straight out of a ‘70s paranoia thriller, with Maya watching Brandt from the school’s roof, while the girls’ flirtation with “The Craft”-style witchcraft in “Vendy Wiccany” includes Maya trying to cast a love spell. Erskine does solid work throughout as the increasingly anxious Maya is gaslit by Brandt and confused about her own feelings, and some of her reactions—particularly one of gut-wrenching devastation—really land. In contrast, Anna’s arc over the first half of the season is primarily reactive, but Konkle almost evokes “Bill and Ted”-era Keanu Reeves in how easily she can shift between earnest sincerity and surprised sadness. Her parents’ constant fighting, her classmates’ bullying, and Alex’s disinterest are all motivators, and they relate to a piece of advice that Anna spends these first seven episodes trying to embody: “Life can pummel you down. … Learn how to pummel back.”
Despite the Brandt focus, the standouts of this second go-round for “PEN15” exist outside of the eighth-graders’ (mostly failed) romances. As usual, the attention to turn-of-the-century detail is a nostalgia bonanza; for millennials who are in the same age range as the 33-year-old Erskine and Konkle, the references are almost too overwhelming to count. Song choices from Will Smith, Sophie B. Hawkins, and Vitamin C; magazine cutouts of Devon Sawa, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Heath Ledger on the girls’ walls; three-way calls; duct-tape wallets; beepers; Surge soda; Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and Kangol hats. Those details are incorporated in ways that make narrative sense for each episode, in particular in season highlights “Three” and “Sleepover,” in which the manipulative Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) tries to become Maya and Anna’s new best friend. How the girl plies them with expensive gifts and name-brand snacks builds further friction between Maya, Anna, and their respective mothers, and raises questions about how often we mistake having wealth for having a personality.
The gross-out stuff is still around, although intermittently: a close-up of a booger; Anna saying that she would use any magic powers they develop to create an invisible glove that could pull farts out of Maya’s butt; a surprisingly graphic scene involving age-inappropriate breastfeeding. But one of the show’s quietest subplots, in which one of Maya and Anna’s classmates begins to reconsider his sexual orientation, hits hardest. And for as much as “PEN15” revels in fantasy sequences (a montage showing Anna and Maya bulking up into bodybuilders; a scene where Anna howls at the moon like a werewolf; a fourth-wall-breaking monologue by Maya as she practices for the school play), the show’s most impactful moments so far this season are the ones that reaffirm loyalty and love. An embrace between Maya and Anna after Anna’s home situation takes a turn for the worse, or Maya defending her mother to a xenophobic classmate. These girls haven’t changed—they can still be selfish, and they can still demonstrate a staggering amount of innocence (like when Anna snarls, “You cannot be someone else on AIM. It’s illegal!”). But “PEN15” grows in its second season by imagining all the answers Maya, Anna, their family, and their friends could provide to questions like, “Who cares what others think? Are you alright?” The show is better for that expansive perspective but personalized character focus, and Erskine and Konkle remain infinitely watchable.
Seven episodes screened for review.