Why Are Live-Action Sitcoms Making Animated Specials?

PEN15 joins a growing list

August 27th sees the premiere of the Pen15 animated special on Hulu. Pen15 is a cringecentric middle school comedy where Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play teenage versions of themselves. It’s about as weird as it sounds. But for those who find gimmick off-putting, the Pen15 animated special takes a lot of the edge off, as the animated counterparts of the leads lack the subtle tells that the actresses are significantly older than the characters they portray. Of course, the Pen15 animated special isn’t a full-on reboot. So why does it even exist?

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

COVID has made a mess of trying to do any kind of film shooting. In an era where people are reluctant to leave their homes to do work, the more cloistered environment of vocal recording functions as a safe space. Last year the sitcoms One Day at a Time and Black-ish both had animated specials, and promotional material for both made particular note of how the ideas for these specials came about in part due to COVID. Not coincidentally, both specials also had explicit political themes. The gimmick of an animated special was a perfect opportunity to discuss politics directly in the context of an election year.

While the Pen15 animated special likewise has COVID embedded in its origin story, the content is actually a bit more interesting thematically. While the animation is mostly fairly mundane and even cheap-looking, there’s one noteworthy flourish in that the character designs undergo a noteworthy alteration concurrent with the teenage girls unexpectedly developing self-image problems. The show couldn’t have clearly expressed their new hideous, cartoonish proportions in live action. And this is no knock against Pen15’s central gimmick–outside of animation there’s just no way to clearly present this kind of body dysmorphia, which by design is distorted and out of proportion with reality.

But the animation is still cheap, which gets into the other real reason for the resurgence in animated specials beyond just COVID existing. Animation itself has gotten much less expensive to produce in recent years, and this manifests in all three of the programs mentioned. The so-called Cal Arts style, which uses simple character designs and thin-lined animation, is nearly omnipresent these days, even in regularly animated programs. While such artwork lacks vibrancy, its sheer cost-effectiveness makes it an easy sell to producers. Likewise, marketers don’t really need overly elaborate designs to try and build hype for a show.

Still, it’s hard to get excited about laziness. Beyond just COVID and cost-cutting, the big spiritual predecessor in the animated special department is actually Community. Way back in 2010, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas reimagined the entire cast and others as stop-motion characters, pursuant to the title character’s mental breakdown. Four years later, G.I. Jeff reran the same plot beat with a much cheaper style–although in this case the cheapness at least had an internal justification, as the episode was a parody of eighties cartoons such as G.I. Joe. And if you really want to stretch the definition of animation, the 2013 episode Intro to Felt Surrogacy replaced the leads with muppets for the bulk of the runtime. Thematically, this represents the characters retreating into a therapeutic space following a humiliating social event.

The Pen15 animated special does just barely enough with the animated format that it didn’t feel like a repurposed script. In a way it’s kind of charming how a vacation to a mostly empty, overpriced beach defies expectations because the main characters themselves certainly had higher hopes than the experience they were getting. It’s clever, but not so clever that I could really recommend this episode to anyone who’s not already a fan of the series. The cringe is, as usual, overpowering.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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