The roughest job most of us will ever have is getting through middle school. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle understand that better than anyone else in Hollywood. That’s why their Hulu series “PEN15,” which features the 33-year-old actors as 13-year-old misfits who crave popularity more than perfect grades, is more grueling — and more relatable — than any season of “Survivor.”
“That age is when I think everyone kind of starts to develop insecurities and realize that they’re not who they’re ‘supposed to be,’ ” Erskine said last month during the virtual edition of the TV Critics Association press tour. “It’s an interesting way to look back at when you were hiding all the freaky parts of yourself, all those secrets that made you an outcast in your mind.”
The first season, which earned an Emmy nomination for writing, dealt largely with the pair’s budding friendship. That bond becomes a lifeline in the seven new episodes that dropped on Friday, especially when Konkle’s Anna Kone comes to grips with the realization that her parents are never ever getting back together. After the pair overhear one particularly nasty argument, they bolt to nearby woods and vow to become witches.
“It was a really exciting unity of dark and freaking crazy,” said Konkle, who based the story line on what she went through when her own parents split. “It was a fun episode to do, despite it being kind of devastating to do, also.”
Those mixed emotions sum up the appeal of “PEN15.”
It’s cute to watch Erskine’s Maya Ishii-Peters practice her kissing technique in a full-length mirror, but when she’s rejected by her first crush — at one cringe-inducing moment, she joins the boys’ wrestling team just to be close to him — you’ll want to soothe your soul in a pint of ice cream.
It gets even more painful. Male viewers should acquire a new appreciation for how awkward it is for girls to face their first periods. Teens engage in “slut shaming” long before they get driver’s licenses. A game of late-night Truth or Dare gets so out of control that you may seriously wonder if slumber parties should be outlawed.
Erskine admits that she and Konkle, who have known each other since they both attended New York University, may not have come across as traumatized by such ordeals in their youth. Even then, they were actors.
“Anytime I describe myself at that age, I’m a complete outcast with barely any friends and miserable,” she said. “Then I re-meet people from that time and they’re like, ‘You were so nice and we all liked you.’ My yearbook is full of all these weirdly positive comments, something that undermined my real feelings at the time.”
Opening up about that painful period of life may be the primary reason “PEN15” has been a hit with critics (Rotten Tomatoes gave the first season a 93% approval rating) and with viewers who wouldn’t normally rely on television writers to be their therapists.
“One of the biggest things that’s probably different about our show from a lot of TV is there’s no happy ending or a lesson,” Konkle said. “I mean, hopefully there are things that come through that are motivating or hopeful. But at the end of the day, we’re really trying to hold a mirror up to our experiences in a way that’s funny or honest or whatever. We didn’t know how it would resonate with others. But it turns out we’re all the same weird people.”
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin