This outing of PEN15 centers on one of the toughest lessons of young adulthood: You rarely get the approval you want, and you rarely want the approval you get. To make matters worse, you’re not experienced enough at that age to adequately pretend that need doesn’t exist. The show manages to summon this complex feeling in just two perfect lines of dialogue: “Let’s just not care,” Maya tells Sam faux-nonchalantly when he offers to hang out with her. “But don’t be late.”
Summoning the naked desperation that most adults put years of effort into trying to suppress is hard. But both Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine seem to have cracked the code, delivering completely outstanding performances in this episode. There’s loads of nuance even in largely wordless scenes, like the one in which Anna goes out for a solo in chorus. She wants to raise her hand to try out, but not be first to do it; she unthinkingly mouths along with the other auditioner, secure in the knowledge that she’s the better singer; when the class is encouraged to offer her competitor polite praise, she overcorrects by being too effusive.
What’s impressive about the episode is that Anna actually is the better singer, and there’s still comic potential to mine in that. A lesser comedy might be tempted to turn up the humiliation dial on Anna and Maya, making them eternal failures in all corners of their lives: family, school, boys. This one is more realistic. Both girls are gifted and lucky in some ways, and they do succeed sometimes, as much as anyone can. As in real life, getting what they want from time to time makes the times when they don’t get it all the more agonizing.
For Maya, that’s parental approval. “Solo” features the first appearance of Mr. Peters, who, like Maya Erskine’s real-life dad, is a professional touring drummer. A sweet-natured, goofy guy frequently on the road with his Steely Dan cover band, he keeps in touch with Maya via loving faxes strewn with homemade drawings. Desperate to make her pops proud, Maya’s responses often embellish the truth, from the goal she scored at soccer (when she actually had one scored on her) to all the new friends she and Anna are making (when they’re actually horrified at Maya again impersonating Jim Carrey by “talking” out of her butt).
Eventually, one of Maya’s lies catches up to her. Allotted all of three notes on the timpani at the school recital, she fibs to her dad that she’s set to have a solo. He flies back to see Maya continue the family musical legacy, trapping her in the lie. In fact, she can’t even play her actual three notes right — not for her dad, and not for superior drummer Sam, who tries to help her relax. The self-important band teacher, obsessed with the self-composed piece he’s having the students play, is no help, either. (In one of many great little touches in the episode, he puts his headshot, in a full tux, on the cover of the recital program.)
In contrast with Maya, Anna is the queen of the Trailview music department, earning major solos in both chorus and band. Things seem to be going her way: Her parents’ fighting has abated, and her crush Alex has broken up with his girlfriend, giving her hope of a shot at dating him. But while Anna sees Alex exclusively in pop-ballad slo-mo, Alex has no clue who Anna even is. In an excruciating scene, they’re paired as lab partners, Anna utterly failing to play it cool while putting her arm around his chair and dropping unsubtle hints about her availability.
Alex isn’t interested, but Anna forges on, hoping against hope her performances will make a more lasting impression. Instead, they draw the attention of her sweet, chubby band classmate Brandon, who’s very taken with her competence on the French horn. It’s a perfect evocation of the hierarchical nightmare that is school crushes. Your entire fate seems to rest on the “yes or no?” note you’ve just passed in class, while you try to deny the one crumpled in your back pocket, feeling only pity and revulsion.
By the time we get to the big school concert, tensions are running high even before anyone goes onstage. So anxious her hands are cramping into claws, Maya can barely think straight. (“Oh God, it’s Alex, six o’clock,” she tells Anna, who turns to look behind them. “Uh, actually I don’t know what o’clock it is, but he’s right over there.”) Mortified after missing her first timpani note of the program, Maya goes berserk with frustration, flying into a hysterically funny drum solo that concludes with a perfectly timed barf all over the drum set.
The more competent Anna nails her solos, but she takes no pleasure in them. Instead, her eyes are glued to the audience, where her parents are once again caught up in a fight. Her mom storms out in a rage, while her dad is too distracted to have remembered to buy her flowers, much less a promised ice-cream cake. The absolute bottom comes as her dad apologizes by meekly pawning off the contents of his wallet ($7), just as Alex strolls past to bestow a flower on the pretty girl Anna beat out at chorus auditions. Being the best no longer matters.
Heartbroken and empty, Anna acts out in a time-honored teen girl tradition: agreeing to date someone she doesn’t actually like that much, in the hope that it will prop up her shattered self-worth. Brandon’s only value to her is in being “a boyfriend” that she can have, and in letting Maya participate in that feeling, too. You can see their “relationship” is destined to crash and burn, largely at Brandon’s expense. Yet the cascade of adolescent heartbreak flows downhill, too powerful to resist anyone’s control.