LOS ANGELES, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- PEN15 co-creators and co-stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine had to decide just how deep into their childhoods they wanted to delve in Season 2 of the comedic series.
"I think we struggled with how dark to go," Konkle said on a recent Television Critics Association panel.
Konkle used the unusual circumstances of her parents' divorce as inspiration for a storyline. Her parents lived together in the same house after they divorced, and the show follows fictional Anna as she struggles with the same situation.
"It was really confusing," Konkle said. "There was this attachment to them and to us as a family, of course. And then, at the same time, it was very tense."
Konkle said PEN15 also will explore how that confusion adversely affected her mental health.
"For me, those darker feelings started introducing themselves around 13 years old," Konkle said. "We felt that [PEN15] could be real, honest and dark, and also funny and magical."
Erskine and Konkle are not the only ones to base storylines on events from their childhoods. All of the show's writers encourage one another to include childhood incidents in the scripts.
"My mom slapped me on the butt or slapped me once across the face," Erskine said. "Everyone's like, 'Well, let's put it in!' OK, you know, that was my childhood."
In the show, 33-year-olds Konkle and Erskine portray teenagers in the year 2000. Season 1 introduced Anna and Maya, two best friends who are beginning seventh grade together. Both hoped that grade would bring them boyfriends and popularity, but each episode only confronted them with more awkward situations.
Erskine said that Anna and Maya explore new identities in Season 2 as a way of coping with their problems, but they remain an inseparable duo. In one episode, they try to become witches to cast spells to save Anna's parents' marriage.
"If they're going to be witches, then they're going to be witches together," Erskine said. "They're using this identity of being a witch to cover up or deal with their own separate pains, or separate journeys."
The combination of absurdity with real pain is what Konkle feels PEN15 does best.
"It was just a fun episode to do, despite it being kind of devastating to do also," Konkle said of the witch narrative.
Both characters struggle with their relationships with their mothers in Season 2, but for different reasons. Anna resents her mother for the separation of her family, while Maya feels her mother is smothering her.
"At that age, I find that with a lot of moms and daughters it's such a complicated relationship," Erskine said. "Anna and I both shared the same experience of wanting to be as far away from our moms [as possible]."
Anna lashes out at her mother by calling her a bitch. Konkle said that, too, was something she really said as a teenager.
"We wanted to play with the theme of anti-mom, pro-dad stuff that happens at that age," Konkle said.
Konkle worried that the season could be too brutal on the characters' mothers. Since the show is autobiographical, Konkle worried if it might hurt her mother's feelings. However, she promised a benevolent resolution.
"We acknowledge our mothers in a certain way," Konkle said. "As a woman, you're told to be a certain way. When you're not that way, it can really be a downer on yourself and your mom. "
While Konkle knew she was reliving her childhood trauma for PEN15, Erskine was more surprised to discover the hurt her memories brought. She shared personal stories she thought were funny, but the show forced her to admit they were painful, too.
"I would, as a defense mechanism, tell [stories] in a humorous way, as a way to cope with it," Erskine said. "As we're writing, you start to find that the hole opens up a little bit of that pain. Then when you're on set, it cracks open even more."
PEN15 returns Friday on Hulu.