Pen15 Season 1 (2019, Hulu)
Written by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Sam Zvibleman, Jessica Watson, Andrew Rhymer, Jeff Chan, Gabe Liedman, and Stacy Osei-Kuffour
Directed by Dan Longino, Andrew DeYoung, and Sam Zvibleman
It’s 2000; Maya and Anna are starting middle school. The two young ladies have been friends for as long as they remember, but nothing will test the strength of their friendship more than this time in their lives. They must deal with boys, parents in crumbling marriages, band, cliques, periods, and their first multi-night sleepover. The thing is, Maya and Anna are played by two women in their early 30s recreating their youth. While the characters in the universe of the show see thirteen-year-old girls, the audience is fully aware of the reality of the actors in the roles.
In the grand tradition of shows like The Wonder Years or Freaks and Geeks, Pen15 is a nostalgic trip into a simpler time. Enough years have passed so that 2000 is twenty years behind us and can become perfect fodder for reexamination. Pen15 doesn’t try to be wholly grounded, and this allows some delightful absurdist humor to shine through. In one episode, Maya discovers masturbation but is haunted by the spirit of her grandfather, her family being Japanese they have a shrine devoted to him in the living room. In another episode the girls’ steal one of the popular clique’s thongs which leads to hilarious POV waking dreams about the effects of this piece of underwear.
You might think the adult women as kids conceit would grow old quick, becoming an unfunny joke that overstays its welcome. The performances of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are so committed though that you completely forget they aren’t children. They inject just the perfect amount of insight that an actual adolescent wouldn’t think up that it adds to the thoughtfulness of the comedy. Erskine employs her real-life mother as her mother in the series and adds to the sense that these women are re-enacting some authentic moments from their childhoods.
The friendship between the adult Erskine and Konkle didn’t begin until they met in college, but they have managed to take real-life events from their youth and intertwine them into a beautiful and funny retelling. Konkle’s parents divorced when she was in middle school in the latter half of the season this becomes a significant plot point. Anna finds herself staying the night for two days at Maya’s while her parents head off to a couples’ retreat as a last-ditch effort. The audience knows the marriage is ending no matter what, but Anna at least feigns hope that everything will work out. The adult Konkle plays these scenes with a suppressed sense of knowing, playing at ignorance to the way her life is about to change drastically.
A major stumbling block for poorly made nostalgia series is an over-reliance on name dropping pop culture of the time. Pen15 avoids that and uses 2000s media as essential parts of the plot. In one episode, the girls are making a mock music video to promote being healthy and frame themselves as The Old Spice Girls who have osteoporosis and need milk. This leads to a moment where Maya is labeled as “other” by the popular girls, forced to play Scary Spice when she wants to be Posh. The message here is that Scary Spice, the one member of the group who is a person of color, is the only thing another girl of color could ever be. In another episode, Maya develops an obsession with America Online chatrooms, developing a romantic relationship with “flymiamibro” and makes embarrassingly impulsive decisions when pursuing this anonymous person.
Pen15 organically transforms the painful into the humorous, never dulling the edges of the real pain of growing up and transitioning into adulthood. It does, however, look back with a mature and honest eye about how silly kids can be when faced with emotional obstacles of life. The energy of the characters swings wide with emotions where happy and sad are never small states of being. While I wasn’t a middle schooler in 2000, or even ever a young woman, there is still enough truth in the comedy that I can find that connection with Maya and Anna.