Adolescence has been handled with both humor and pathos on TV, in series like Freaks And Geeks, My So-Called Life, and The Wonder Years. More recent additions like Big Mouth and Sex Education are part of a new class, one that really grasps just how marvelous and grotesque our changing bodies are (or once were). And then there’s Hulu’s Pen15, which takes the even more novel approach of sending actors and series co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle back to school so they can relive the humiliation, first loves, and cargo skirts of their 2000s adolescence.
Pen15, which gets its name from something you might remember seeing scrawled on the hands of unsuspecting preteens, sees Erskine and Konkle playing their younger selves, complete with orthodontia and bowl cuts. When the show begins, best friends Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) are ready for anything middle school can throw at them; their alter egos have dreamt up all kinds of mortifying and revealing situations, like being dubbed the ugliest girl in school and exacting revenge for that injurious incident. There’s also the occasional triumph, like handily beating the most popular girl in school (Anna Pniowsky) for a coveted choir solo, or getting your first kiss. Through it all, Maya and Anna are sweet and hormonal, emotionally beset yet incredibly optimistic; they’re also, most notably, 13-year-old girls portrayed by a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old.
Despite how youthful Erskine and Konkle are, in both appearance and demeanor, this casting choice is never far from our minds, in part because every other role is played by someone age appropriate. Sitcom vet Richard Karn slips easily into the part of Maya’s drummer dad Fred, while the kooky energy of fellow standout Melora Walters, who plays Anna’s mother, establishes a family resemblance. The younger cast members include Dallas Liu as Maya’s popular, confident brother, Shuji, as well as Taj Cross and Brady Allen as the girls’ equally dorky, but clearly considerably younger, peers. The early episodes come across as extended sight gags, made up of two adults dressed in throwback fashions (so many teeny butterfly clips and sparkling eyelids!), playing with Sylvanian Families toy sets and slouching next to their pubescent co-stars. It gives the show the feel of an overlong comedy sketch, or worse, a spin-off of a comedy sketch—and even though Saturday Night Live collaborators The Lonely Island are co-producers/executive producers, Pen15 probably doesn’t aspire to be a Superstar. Also, like virtually every other streaming series, Pen15 is too, uh, long—the premises for the first four episodes in particular could easily been merged into just two installments.
It’s at the halfway mark that Pen15 grows into an equally affecting and raunchy coming-of-age story, demonstrating that middle school isn’t any easier to navigate with hindsight. As Maya and Anna’s friendship is tested by boys, ambition, and the passage of time, Pen15 takes on the poignancy found in the best teen movies, like Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge Of Seventeen. Despite their closeness, Maya and Anna are fully realized characters in their own right, with different talents and shortcomings, and, as a late episode reveals, very different home lives. Even with such astute writing, the show wouldn’t work without such committed leads—and Erskine and Konkle absolutely throw themselves into the roles, capturing the full jumble of preteen emotions and motivations. This duo’s teenage symphony to God is composed of mile-a-minute chatter, petulant “but Mo-ohm”s, and “he’s so cute”s, and it’s a tune worth hearing.
But Pen15 develops its comedy along with its female friendships and emotionally resonant storytelling. While acknowledging that there’s no simple flip of a switch to shut down the awkwardness, the series doubles down on its cringe-inducing humor—including a make-out party where Wild Things provides the ambience—at the same time it deepens its central relationship. And then the incongruity of two adults walking the same halls as kids half their age comes full circle, occasionally reaching the off-the-wall greatness of Strangers With Candy. That Comedy Central series balanced an after-school special earnestness, embodied by Amy Sedaris as boozer/user/loser/middle-age high school student Jerri Blank, with almost demented humor. The sixth episode, titled “Tolerant,” is the perfect blend of poor planning and good intentions, with season-best performances by Erskine and Konkle; it also feels like a lost entry in Strangers With Candy. So although Pen15’s viewers are the only ones in on the joke of these two adults trying to not to botch middle school the second time around, once the first preposterous intervention is staged, it’s no less funny.