Co-created by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, Hulu’s PEN15 is as delightful a comedy as you’ll find this year. But despite its brilliance, this freshman sitcom could have easily been dismissed for a variety of reasons. It’s intentionally juvenile title might be a turn off to some. It’s leads are 31-year-old actresses playing 13-year-olds amidst a cast of actual middle schoolers – which sounds like an amusing sketch idea that could run dry when stretched into a full-length series. And it’s set in the year 2000, which might indicate that it crutches on millennial nostalgia.
And yet in defiance of all expectations, PEN15 quickly transcends it’s gimmicks to bloom into one of the sincerest, warmest and most painfully universal coming-of-age stories on television. By combining the raunch of Big Mouth with the resonance of Eighth Grade, this Lonely Island production actually manages to traverse meaningful new territory – both wonderful and humiliating – within an overly mined genre. Yes there is broad humour with its premise’s inherent sight gag, but as the show goes deeper, so do the laughs, aches, and characterization.
Unlike other school shows that have a tendency to make their adolescent protagonists seem wittier or more worldly than they could reasonably be, PEN15 leans into its leads’ uncool awkwardness hard. Maya and Anna react inappropriately to everything, and we instinctively see the confused posturing, and that inability to understand emotions that we’ve all experienced at that age. A lot of it is agonizing to watch, but it is also fundamentally relatable. It’s a testament to Erskine and Konkle’s dedicated, dorky performances that we believe that they’re 13 again.
The visual of two adults amongst children might seem to surreal to get pass, but after a while, Maya and Anna’s physicality is so immersive that you’re convinced they are kids they used to be. And before long, you see why having adult actors are important to the story. In episode three, Maya first discovers masturbation – an act she becomes unhealthily obsessed with. Naturally, this key moment of early puberty is so rarely explored because it would be creepy to have a kid simulate it onscreen. However, Erskine’s adulthood sidesteps this issue elegantly.
(Similarly, Big Mouth uses adult voice actors to say things that would be much too uncomfortable to let a 12 or 13-year-old deliver).
PEN15 is unafraid to go big with it’s humour, and Maya and Anna are good enough on script and on camera to pull it off. But it’s the show’s small moments of navigating relationships, family, and unfamiliar new urges, that endears you to it’s emotional authenticity. Even the show’s more well-trodden stories – involving boys, bullying and a parents’ divorce – ring truer than most. Most compellingly though, is PEN15’s forthright depiction of the complex nature of female friendship, which is rare considering most shows of this ilk are created and written by men.
Maya and Anna are self-conscious and defensive, growing on different timetables, which can sometimes lead to devastating fractures in their bond. On more than one occasion, their childhood promise to always do everything together just isn’t feasible. And their tendency to get caught up in their own drama, often blinds them to the moments when their best friend needs them the most. This is a keenly observed portrait of pubescent purgatory, set amidst a love letter to the fondly remembered era of landlines, dial-up modems, Spice Girls and jelly pens.
PEN15’s Y2K touches aren’t overbearing, but they do provide a wonderful flourish. From the period-appropriate style, to the kids’ crude vernacular (every other sentence contains a “slut” or “bitch”), everything is on point. There’s even a weirdly specific episode built around the group of kids watching Denise Richards’ steamy erotic thriller Wild Things. The casual racism of the era isn’t ignored either, setting the stage for a particularly difficult episode where Maya (she’s half Japanese) realizes that even her best friend can be complicit in making her feel like an outsider.
The cringeworthy elements on display can be challenging to watch, not because they’re false, but because they’re almost too honest. And while it’s first couple of episodes can be difficult to acclimate to, PEN15 ultimately reveals itself to be one of 2019’s most rewarding shows. There are horrors and indignities that we all go through at that age, but what PEN15 emphasizes is the important role friends play in propping each other up – during a time when we’re repeatedly floored by moments heartbreak, frustration and demoralization that feel too big to deal with alone.