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If all this alone time makes you nostalgic, then ‘PEN15’ should be your new best friend

Maya Erskine, left, and Anna Konkle play “Maya” and “Anna” in the achingly funny and always cringeworthy “PEN15.” (Erica Parise/Hulu)
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Some of us have taken time during this pandemic year to reflect on the past. Closets and cabinets and cardboard boxes are receiving fresh scrutiny, offering up some nearly forgotten treasures: old photos, yearbooks, diaries, love letters and keepsakes. These objects beckon in a somehow urgent way. In such close company with ourselves, it’s no wonder we’re indulging in personal nostalgia — whether it’s the good, the bad or the ugly. As the stickers on videocassettes used to say: Be kind, rewind.

Even people who aren’t prone to dwell on the past may find some refuge in reconsidering the awkwardness of youth — a path back to a time when you and your spazzy friends could share soda bottles unthinkingly, experience the clumsy and moist sensation of a first kiss, embarrass yourselves at backyard pool parties and play pranks on one another at peer-pressured sleepovers.

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the co-creators and stars of Hulu’s achingly funny and always cringeworthy comedy “PEN15,” have found a way to take the sentimental flashback narrative to a fascinating new level: Although both women are in their early 30s, they’ve chosen to play eerily believable versions of their 13-year-old selves in middle school, circa 2000.

If one has to choose only one millennial-made TV series that ventures into adolescent angst in the AOL era, please make it this one. “PEN15,” which returns Sept. 18 with seven endearing new episodes (another seven will follow when production can safely resume), could be almost considered an act of communal therapy. In their unflinching and even brave willingness to reenact the range of hair-trigger emotions that turn teenagers into the worst kind of people, Erskine and Konkle (along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman) are offering a kind of catharsis to the rest of us: Yes, you were as awful as you remember being, but guess what? You were in the throes of becoming you. “PEN15” is both an exquisite wallow in hormonal chaos and a belated act of forgiveness.

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What’s most striking about the show, however, is how quickly a viewer can forget that Erskine and Konkle are grown-ups. As “Maya” and “Anna,” Erskine and Konkle are fully in touch with the mannerisms, moods and misgivings of the adolescent struggle between id and superego. And with little more than some heavy orthodontics and unfortunate hairstyles, the two women fall easily into being 13 — an effect that is greatly enhanced by the actors playing their school peers, who are all actual teenagers.

The second season picks up pretty much where the first left off, as Maya and Anna process a shared encounter that took place during a school dance: They each let the boy Maya has a crush on, Brandt (Jonah Beres), briefly touch their breasts. Now the girls cannot stop obsessing over what that means — not as a matter of consent (which they unwittingly if enthusiastically gave) but as a bearer of elevated status, which, of course, becomes grist for a ruthless rumor mill.

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With a front-facing confidence that always crumbles at the slightest hint of conflict, the girls head out for a pool party where they intend to assert control over several unresolved matters with boys. Anna will break up with a boy she’s no longer interested in; Maya will prepare herself to receive from Brandt her first kiss; and they will scold their friend Sam (Taj Cross) for pretending to be someone else on an AIM chat.

Disavowing “drama,” they live to create more drama, and “PEN15” hilariously draws the viewer right in the awful middle of it. Anyone who can’t relate might have been unconscious as a teen.

The new season tests the girls in several ways: One gets the lead role in a school play, an oddly inappropriate adult-themed drama (cast member Dylan Gage, as Gabe, gives a standout performance here), while the other girl turns her resentment at not being cast into a reign of terror as stage manager. Maya and Anna’s friendship also comes under sneak attack when a new girl, Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), insinuates herself into their lives, declaring that they should now form a trio, causing acrimonious ripples.

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Maya and Anna’s incessant need to impress their peers is portrayed here as both an affliction (of which the main symptom is boy-craziness) and a necessary rite of passage. In nearly every episode, one of the girls is tempted to betray the other for the tiniest gain in social capital — until they come to their senses and realize the most valued asset on the battlefields of middle school is a friendship like theirs.

In those moments, the facade of “PEN15” cracks ever so slightly and one senses the show’s true meaning: It’s about two women allowing themselves to completely love the girls they once were, faults and all.

PEN15 (seven episodes) returns Sept. 18 on Hulu.

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