5 Screenwriting Takeaways From Hulu's 'Pen 15'
September 23, 2020
Sometimes the state of the world may make adults think we have a monopoly on existential dread, but Pen15 is here to remind us that junior high schoolers have it pretty bad, too. The show's big hook—two women staring down middle age yet effortlessly transformed to play pre-teens—was surrounded by questions of viability in season one. But, season two is almost never played for laughs, and one might even find themselves brought to tears with an additional, sudden desire to send a close confidant a handcrafted friendship bracelet.
The power of the show lies with the unnerving closeness of its two stars Anna (played by the lanky, sensitive Anna Konkle) and Maya (the fearless Maya Erskine). The mercilessness of middle school does its best to tear the two apart, but most of the time, they overcome the cruelty of the masses to stick together through thick and thin.
The staff writers, along with creators Konkle and Erskine, deserve much credit for clearly tapping childhood trauma to enhance the delightful, upsetting and even healing episodes of the show. Feelings of inadequacy, alienation, grief through divorce, and the desperation to do anything to be accepted, abound in season two. No episode passes by without a punch to the gut that makes you want to scream-sing Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” and then go have a long bath while your Mom helps rid you of unwanted body hair.
So what can we take away as screenwriters from season two of Pen15?
1. Nostalgia Remains a Powerful Drug. Pen15 is excellent at giving its audience a shot in the arm of much needed nostalgia. Oftentimes, half the fun of the show is seeing what '90s jams will be featured (Maya singing along to “Slob on My Knob” is a highlight) as is an epic entrance to a pool party set to “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.” No production design or wardrobe detail is left unturned on the show. The world of Pen15 eats, breathes and sleeps the '90s, for better or for worse. Every writer can learn from and admire how detailed the world creation truly is—and then possibly lust for a puka shell necklace and pink jeans.
2. Invest in Relationships. While some episodes of Pen15 have very little plot (one episode this season is entirely about Maya and Anna trying out witchcraft), each one is about our heroines’ best friendship. Viewers are treated to inside jokes between the pair, and can likely instantly recall which friends helped with middle school survival—and which ones made it a living hell. One can likely remember the thrill they got when receiving a first phone call just for you, or when your bestie signed into your AIM chat room, or that one great sleepover that made one forget your parents are in the midst of a brutal divorce. The ups and downs of Maya and Anna’s friendship are so specific, you likely rode the bus with some girls just like them...or were part of a pack just like it. At the very least, you might’ve owned that wheel-y backpack or gotten injured by one in the hallways. The paradox here is, the more specific you can be in your writing, the more universal it becomes. Plot holes in television shows are easily forgiven if the world is populated with such tangible friendships.
3. Sometimes Your Protagonist Is Your Best Antagonist. While many middle schoolers are beyond cruel to Anna and Maya this season (the girls become known as BSB, which stands for Big Smelly Bush) the two do not necessarily do themselves any favors during their time in middle school. Although neither does the patriarchal American hardcore rap and thong-loving environment they grew up in. That said, there’s no roadmap to growing up as an American pre-teen, and the girls do not always make the best choices. When beside herself from obsessing over Brandt (the dude who got to feel up both Maya and Anna during last season’s big dance), Maya spreads her own rumor about their three-way which soon spirals out of control. Maya and Anna are soon forced to discover the unfortunate power of slut-shaming when the rumor spreads like wildfire. While Brandt is also an antagonistic force this season, he is also surprisingly tolerant of Maya’s infatuation. It is Maya’s fervent (and almost admirable disillusion about the situation) that ultimately pushes Brandt to the brink and finally scream at Maya that he does not like her, revealing that this season’s worst antagonist of all is indeed both the power of infatuation and the fragile ego of those who have not yet experienced a broken heart.
4. Consider Introducing an Unexpected Relationship. At the midpoint of the first half of season two, we're introduced to Maura, an unexpected new friend and rich kid who manages to infiltrate the tight-knit closeness of Anna and Maya (whose relationship seemed previously impenetrable). But having an intercom in your house, calling your Mom the c-word when bossing her around, and knowing about the best sleepovers is pretty powerful stuff when you’re a pre-teen. Maya and Anna are instantly taken with Maura, and Maura soon finds she can manipulate them and certify her place in their friend group simply by orchestrating a campaign for “best-best friends.” If your piece needs some new conflict, the beauty of television over film is you can always introduce a new and unexpected character to stir the pot. Maura was a great and interesting addition this season as a chance to more deeply examine female friendship dynamics, that sadly don’t always resolve themselves by the time women reach adulthood.
5. Push it Real Good. This season truly pushed the envelope by having Maya and Anna experience some serious highs and lows, like having to defend the merit of their vaginas to themselves (and the entire school), surviving an excruciating pool party, and having to explain why they got in trouble for witchcraft. Pen15 is the type of comedy that was made to push the envelope, and it felt hard to top the circle motion of the first time rounding second base in season one’s finale. But this season’s cringe-worthy moments should come with a warning: If you have PTSD from a rough experience in middle school, proceed with caution. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. The more the writers put Anna and Maya through the ringer, the more any tiny little victory feels like a triumphant release.
Final Takeaway: Just as Maya and Anna literally experience headlocks, chokeslams, and piledrivers in episode two of this season, your heart might feel the same as the writers ensure no stone of embarrassment, lust, shame or shock is left unturned as the girls navigate the seventh grade. Unclench your jaw from the crisis that is 2020 and hold onto your puka shells as you re-engage with the crisis that is junior high in its entirety.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/