‘Excruciatingly relatable’: why Pen15’s animated special might be its best episode yet


When the pandemic hit last year, plenty of television programmes attempted to fill the pause in production with Zoom episodes. While this might have seemed like a good idea at first, the net result was dozens of identical-looking shows – often with the actors failing to resemble their own characters – making the same tedious “you’re on mute” joke over and over again.

But some shows managed to figure out a smarter way to keep going. One Day at a Time and Black-ish turned to animation to get things done. It allowed for a Covid-safe working environment, with actors operating remotely, and the end results were – if not up there with the best episodes – at least an interesting diversion.

Pen15 is about to unveil a new cartoon episode, created under the same circumstances. However, the difference this time is that, in its animated special Jacuzzi, may have made its best episode yet.

That’s saying something. Pen15 is a beautiful gem of a show. What at first threatened to be gimmicky and off-putting – the sight of two women in their 30s playing adolescent versions of themselves certainly takes a moment of adjustment – has quickly grown into a gorgeously observed comedy about the agony of being trapped between two worlds. While it largely treads the same ground as Netflix’s Big Mouth, Pen15 is a much more delicate affair. Not for nothing does its second season currently hold a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Miraculously, Jacuzzi manages to somehow best everything that has come before. A small, sweet holiday episode, it sees Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (again, voicing their teenage counterparts), take a holiday to Florida with Anna’s newly single father. They meet some boys, try some alcohol, get into a moderate amount of trouble. In all honesty, nothing of any great importance happens, but it all feels important thanks to the lens through which it’s seen.

In this regard, the animation actually helps a great deal. The style they’ve chosen is cheap and jerky which, whether intentional or not, comes off like a cunning detail. Pen15 is set 20 years ago, and the animation is instantly reminiscent of elements from MTV’s 90s showcase series Liquid Television.

The fact that Jacuzzi is animated also means that the show’s central conceit – here are some adult women playing children – becomes better obscured. Erskine and Konkle no longer need to try to de-age themselves with clothes and makeup, and there’s no longer a moment of jarring creepiness when they start to chat up 13-year-old boys. In animated form, Maya and Erskine are exactly the same as everyone else. If the age gap between performer and character has been putting you off, then this episode could be your jumping-off point.

It also allows for perhaps the most excruciatingly relatable moment in the entire series. If you’ve ever had your portrait drawn by an end-of-the-pier cartoonist, and felt the crushing moment of humiliation as you realise that the world might not see you as you see yourself, there is a moment in this episode that will rip your insides out. The fact that the episode then sticks to its guns and refuses to let the joke drop until the end credits is incredible. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s Pen15’s best joke, and it’s milked for all it’s worth.

Plenty of these recent animated episodes have felt slapdash and self-conscious, as if they were only made to keep a conveyor belt going. But Pen15 has used its animation as a bold reinforcement of everything that was already good about it. It’s just as awkward and tender as it ever was, and viewers will surely find themselves wanting to reach into the television and protect the innocence of these gangly outcasts. If this is the only time that Pen15 attempts an animated special, then it has been a total success. Hopefully, though, it won’t take a pandemic to give us more.

The Pen15 animated special airs in the UK on Sky Comedy at 9pm on 28 August.



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