Hulu’s Emmy-nominated comedy series PEN15 decided to bridge the gap between the two halves of its sophomore season with a one-off, 40-minute animated special. For the uninitiated, adult co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine star in the series as earnest 7th graders in the year 2000, surrounded by 13-year-old actors. But this particular episode marks a departure in form that may have lasting effects on the series.
“Jacuzzi” sees best friends Anna and Maya taking a trip to Florida, where they experience some magical realism that changes the way they see themselves—quite literally, as the girls turn into actual caricatures. The special was originally developed in a live-action format, with camera tricks and prosthetics. “We had the choice when COVID happened: Should we try to wait and do this when things open up, or should we get this out sooner and just do it animated?” Konkle told Vanity Fair in July. With no end to social distancing in sight, the showrunners began working with an artist in Ireland who would go on to animate the special by hand instead.
The special comes after the first half of Season 2 ended on a poignant, heartbreaking note. After the high of a successful school play, Maya’s closeted costar dumps her. Meanwhile, Anna’s dad Curtis shows up and tells her that he’s moving out of their family home, and she will have to choose which parent to live with. “Jacuzzi,” written and directed by Konkle, picks up almost in continuity with the previous episode. Anna holds her hand up to feel the air blow by in her dad’s Solara convertible, and when she pulls it back down, we’ve shifted into an animated world. Curtis, Maya, and Anna then continue driving all the way to a vacation in Florida that promises to be a fun adventure. But the fun never starts.
The trouble begins when Curtis gives the girls a generous cash per diem, and warns them not to spend it all in one place. And as soon as they’re alone, of course, they promptly spend it all on overpriced caricatures of themselves. When they see the art, they’re mortified that their biggest physical insecurities are not only reflected but grotesquely magnified. They try to stash the art away and forget about it, but when they wake up the next morning, their worst insecurities have materialized. Anna’s nose is oversized. Maya has a circular face and a mustache. They’ve literally morphed into their caricatures, and they’re stuck that way for the rest of the episode. It’s a vivid metaphor for teenaged body dysmorphia, that relatable trauma of your body changing, seeing yourself in a new way, and hating it.
I also couldn’t help but think it would have been more interesting to introduce the animation at this point in the story, which could have amplified the body dysmorphia when the girls woke up as their caricatures. Instead, that change in format was taken for granted in a scene that stretched the definition of continuity at the beginning of the special. (Another relic of the live-action version is how Maya begins to use Anna’s dad’s camcorder to record the trip, but it never becomes part of the story.)
These physical insecurities aren’t the only dark cloud that hang over the episode. Its title, “Jacuzzi,” is also the romantic center of the story—first for Maya and Anna when they meet two boys from the hotel, and later for Curtis, when he kisses a woman that isn’t Anna’s mom for the first time. The boys flirt with the girls and tell them they’re going to a club later that night. They exchange hotel room numbers, but when Maya and Anna look for them later, it seems like the boys gave them the wrong room number; when the girls knock on the door, an adult man answers. Confused, they decide they’ll look for the boys at the club later that night, where for some bizarre reason, the bouncer lets the 13-year-old girls in. It’s mostly empty inside the club, but Anna and Maya find a group of underage kids and start drinking with them. The girls get drunk immediately, and Anna becomes weepy and introverted.
Things then get very real when the adult man from the hotel shows up at the club and starts talking to the kids. The girls don’t notice anything strange about it, but the kids they’re with call the man creepy and flag him to the bouncer. The bouncer removes the adult, but leaves the kids alone to drink.
Soon, the clock strikes eight, and the girls have to get back to the hotel room and Anna’s dad. Anna is wasted, and she leans on Maya as they walk back to the hotel in the dark. Maya realizes the adult man is still lurking outside of the club, and it seems like he’s following them back to the hotel. It’s a dark turn for a typically light series, the kind that makes you wonder where it’s ultimately headed. Will the rest of Season 2 be dealing with more adult subjects, and will that detract from the lightning-in-a-bottle, nostalgic cringe comedy they captured in Season 1?
The pursuit stops when Maya blows her rape whistle and the man disappears. And, unless you count some other spooky and unexplained hallucinations, the girls get home without further incident. But it’s a curious inclusion—why would the episode even suggest sexual harassment and assault only to leave the storyline unaddressed? Is this a transition to a new kind of show with a different message? What does that mean for its tone, and for our protagonists? Will they eventually be moving into 2001 and beyond?
Erskine and Konkle told Harper’s Bazaar that they are looking to cast adults as their peers in a totally new direction for the series. “It gets more mature, but tonally, I’d say we kind of go back to Season 1 a little bit more,” Erskine explained. “Lighter. Darker, but lighter.”
If PEN15 is known for being so hilarious that it makes reliving insufferable middle school humiliations palatable, “Jacuzzi” felt like it was from a different show. A more serious show, with slower, grittier, more natural dialogue, and a bare soundtrack, that no one really asked for. It makes one wonder if the style in the special was totally intentional, or if these changes were due COVID-necessary adjustments to production now and in the future.
So much of what makes the show hilarious, unique, and relatable already comes from the absurdity and ridiculousness of Konkle and Erskine playing children in adult’s bodies. Plans for the live-action version of the special sounded so promising, and the prosthetics (rather than animation) feel like a missed opportunity for “Jacuzzi” to play with that exaggerated, surreal body horror that’s native to the show.
Hulu has not yet announced the release date for the second half of the season, but is doubtlessly hoping the special will remind viewers that there are still 7 more episodes to see. Depending which direction the show goes tonally, I wouldn’t be surprised if most viewers think of this as Season 3. As for me, I’m hoping that with a return to live action comes a return to form for one of the best comedies on TV.
The PEN15 animated special is now streaming on Hulu.
Dana Kitchens is a screenwriter and adjunct professor at NYU Tisch.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.