tv shows

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    Middle school was, hands down, the worst three years of my life. I cried almost everyday after school as I tried to balance classes and hormones and social hierarchies. I wore ill-fitting clothing and cracked jokes about teachers to be cool. My mom blew a gasket when she found out that I watched The Hangover at a sleepover and my 8th grade science teacher showed us a video of his wife giving birth to twins during our sex ed unit. The hilarious new Hulu show, Pen15, authentically and creatively captures the ridiculous, painful realities of middle school and reminds viewers of a time when they would do anything to survive. Between fits of laughter, this show had me blurting out, “OMG" and "Relatable!”  

    The 10 cringeworthy, binge-worthy 30-minute eps follow BFFs Maya and Anna as they tackle 7th grade together in the year 2000. What makes the show even funnier is that 31-year-old Maya Erskine and 24-year-old Anna Konkle play the 13-year-old versions of themselves, while their castmates are actual middle schoolers. Adults playing children, surrounded by children sounds like an absurd concept, but I found that it actually heightens the humor and is totally believable.

    Now wait. Hear me out. It's plausible, for one, because girls often mature faster than boys, so it’s not inconceivable that the leads tower over their boy classmates. Additionally, Erskine and Konkle play very young, especially with no makeup and braces. The show also utilizes close-ups and sharp camera angles to skew the viewer’s perspective into seeing the protagonists as childlike. Now I know what you’re thinking…isn’t there potential for intimate scenes between the adult actors and child actors? But don’t worry! The show makes sure to replace child actors with adult body doubles when sensitive scenes occur.

    18 pen15.w600.h315.2x e0660Maya and Anna in Pen15

    Pen15 is reminiscent of many iconic coming-of-age movies and TV shows, like Napoleon Dynamite and Freaks and Geeks. The show explores puberty and hormones in a similar way to Netflix’s Sex Education and Big Mouth, but what sets Pen15 apart from past and present coming of age material is that it shows what it is like for a tween girl to mature and explore herself (the third episode is all about Maya’s discovery of masturbation). Women’s experiences, especially in relation to their bodies, are so often ignored, hypersexualized, or misrepresented in media, but Pen15 does it right. This show, like Broad City, has women writing about women and for women.

    The entirety of Pen15's first season is full of subtle references to the 2000s. The show’s opening theme has goofy pictures of Konkle and Erskine from their actual middle school days flickering across the screen to the beat of Bikini Kill’s “Demirep.” The time capsule nature of the show is done so well that I’m convinced the sound team stole my iPod’s playlists for the show’s soundtrack and the costumes, especially the gym uniform, were replicated from the clothing in my tween self's closet. The show’s name is a nod to the middle school prank of trying to write “penis” on people. At my school, people would say, “Hey. Do you want to join the pen club? I’m Pen14. You can be Pen15, I just have to write it on you.” But wait… Ha! Tricked! You’re not in a cool club, you’re gullible, AND your arm says penis!

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    Pen15 tackles the typical middle school shenanigans, but from a genuine female perspective, including everything from dances, crushes, first kisses, and thongs to drinking, smoking, and cliques to parent/hormonal child fights and more. Pen15 also tackles the not so typical, often not talked about topics of divorce, sexism, and racism. To me, the show is so brutally funny because it is grounded in true emotions and honest reactions. Erskine and Konkle COMMIT to the exaggeration of their middle school memories and younger selves, which accentuates the humor and reveals the complexities, struggles, and insecurities of being a middle school girl.

    Pen15 is similar to Bo Burnham’s movie Eighth Grade, except it stars two adult women who play their middle school selves, which allows for a more retrospective cringe factor, humor, and raunchiness. In the first episode Anna says to Maya, “you are my actual rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils.” So, in Anna fashion, Pen15 is my actual rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black TV shows.

    Pen15 is created, written, and executive produced by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman. The series is produced by AwesomenessTV, Debbie Liebling, Gabe Liedman, Odenkirk Provissiero Entertainment, The Lonely Island, and Becky Sloviter of Party Over Here. Binge it today!

    Photos: stills from Pen15

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    Unbelievable spoilers ahead.

    Netflix recently released a mini-series, Unbelievable, based on The Marshall Project/ProPublica article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” The series tells the true story of Marie Adler who was raped and then, when she tried to report her case, was silenced by male policemen and shunned, only to be validated years later by two female detectives.

    Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) has spent her life in the foster care system and then living on her own. When we meet her, she was just assaulted by a man who, we later learn, was a serial rapist: she’s brave enough to report it after the horrific night, but isn’t believed. She details the night to the police, who convince her that’s she’s crazy and lying, and perhaps dreamt the incident.

    As Marie says later, this ruined her life. She loses friends and credibility, and is charged with making a false accusation and fined $500. The mini-series starts with Marie’s case and then fast-forwards a few years to another very similar assault in a different state: but this victim (Danielle Macdonald) is believed by a compassionate female detective (Merritt Wever), who decides to stop at nothing to find the assailant. She teams up with another detective (Toni Collette) to get to the bottom of the story.

    Before her path crosses with these detectives, Marie, who is charged with lying, is mandated to go to therapy, and she's surprised with a therapist who's able to get her to open up and who ultimately believes Marie's story. The therapist says, "I just wonder if there’s a way to think about it, about how you might manage this kind of injustice, if it were to happen again,” and Marie answers that she’d just lie even earlier on, because the truth is inconvenient.

    Social psychologist Ines Hercovich, who studies sexual violence against women, examines in her Ted Talk why women stay silent after sexual assault: psychologically, she says, it’s due to awareness, shock, and going mute. Silence might even start to turn into a safe haven for victims, especially if and when they aren't believed. On Unbelievable, we really see a difference between what happens to survivors who are believed and the ones who are written off from the start. 

    The real Marie Adler responded to the Netflix mini-series show, calling it "excellent"; she said it was hard to watch, but that she was glad she did. She responded to a few scenes in particular, including the conclusion when — spoiler — the assailant is caught, and onscreen Marie is brought to justice. "Seeing him get put away, that was closure for me," she said.

    Unbelievable is available to stream on Netflix now.

    Top photo via Netflix / Unbelievable

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    HBO’s charming series, Love Life, first premiered in May 2020 as a scripted anthology series, following one character’s quest for love in New York City. The show came at a perfect time during the quarantine, offering much needed levity. Season two shakes up the classic rom-com roles and may just be changing the entire genre.

    Season one followed the romantic entanglements of Anna Kendrick’s Darby. I enjoyed following Darby through her chaotic nights in New York City, awkward first dates, and messy debriefs with her roommates. While I related to Darby, the plot felt all too familiar: a 20-something white woman hopelessly looking for love.

    Last month season two dropped. This season used the same ‘romance-per-episode’ structure, but instead we follow a young Black man. Enter: Marcus Wadkins (William Jackson Harper.) If season one gave us predictable, bland tropes, season two was full of surprises at every turn that genuinely got me thinking about gender, race, and love. While the show is lighthearted, I admired its dedication to contending with the very real struggles of dating as a Black man.

    According to a 2020 study from National Research Group (NRG), two in three Black Americans feel that they don’t see their stories represented on the screen. While the study shows that there has been significant progress in Black representation in media since the 60s, it also shows that there are still many barriers to accurate representation of minorities in TV and movies. A 2017 report by Color of Change Hollywoodfound that only 4.8% of TV writers are Black.

    How can we have authentic depictions of Black characters without Black people writing the stories? On this season of Love Life, a Black writer, Rachelle Williams, was brought on to co show run with Sam Boyd and Bridget Bedard. 

    It is clear from the beginning of the season that Marcus is extremely aware of his Blackness in a yuppie, mostly white world. We first meet him in 2016 at Darby’s wedding reception where he and Mia Hines (Jessica Williams) are some of the only Black guests. They immediately bond, but when Marcus points out his white wife Emily (Maya Kazan) to Mia, he is left feeling judged and questioning his attraction to white women. Even with a light tone, the show begs us to ask serious questions about the role of race in relationships. 

    In the premiere, we see that Marcus’ marriage has fallen into an unexciting rut, but his encounter with Mia brings to light a bigger issue that he can no longer ignore – his white wife’s inability to understand him as a Black man. While he never physically cheats on Emily, Marcus’ emotional relationship with Mia quickly leads to his marriage imploding. 

    Soon enough, Marcus finds himself as a single ‘30-something’ propelled back into the cesspool of hook-up culture. It is in this chaotic whirlwind of hook-ups that we see Marcus for who he really is: a lost, unsure divorcee trying to find himself for the first time. 

    Marcus doesn’t fall into the stereotypical depictions of Black men on screen (aggressive, angry, emotionally unavailable.) Instead, Harper adds elements of his anxious, awkward, but charming character, Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, to his portrayal of Marcus in Love Life

    It is clear that Marcus is not the smoothest guy in the room. He can be stubborn and hot-tempered. He makes some terrible decisions, but you root for him anyway because he is self-aware and he tries to be better. 

    Black rom-coms have been on the decline since the early 2000s. Love Life is also evolving the genre by focusing entirely on Black people. The few white people who do show up in this season are peripheral characters. 

    I’d argue that Mia (Williams) is the real star of the season, which is integral in changing not only our perception of race in rom-coms, but also our perception of gender. In 2020, less than 6% of Black female TV characters were shown in a romantic relationship. Black women are the least likely of any race to be shown as the love interest in a TV series. 

    Mia is not only depicted as Marcus’ object of desire, but she is also portrayed as a force herself. She is a tall, beautiful, NYC working woman who is clearly used to keeping men on their toes. In one episode it is revealed that she is dating the basketball player, Amar’e Stoudemire. 

    In the beginning of the series, Mia resists vulnerability. In one episode we find out that she is the daughter of a young mother and a largely absent father and has taken on the role of caretaker in her family. But over time she lets down her guard with Marcus.

    Mia and Marcus have clear chemistry from their first meeting. What starts as a flirty friendship blossoms into an authentic love story because of their willingness to be vulnerable with one another. 

    Because Marcus, a man, is the one searching for a love interest and Mia, a woman, is a full, complex character herself, their relationship feels real and whole. Mia is neither Marcus’ possession nor his savior. She is simply his shining counterpart which makes their love story a refreshing tale of two equals.

    header: screenshot from youtube 

  •  SINGLE DRUNK FEMALE Freeform’s “Single Drunk Female” stars Sofia Black-D’Elia as Samantha Fink.

    Single Drunk Female, Freeform’s new television series about sobriety written by Simone Finch (The Connors, Homeland) starring Sofia Black D’Elia (Your Honor, The Mick) stars D’Elia as a 20-something irreverent drunk named Samantha Fink, who is clueless to the feelings of others, and out of touch with her own. We quickly learn that much of this dissociation is a result of her unchecked alcoholism, along with a tenuous relationship with her overbearing mother, and unresolved grief surrounding her dad’s death from cancer. Did we mention that her ex-best friend Brit (Sasha Campere) is also marrying her ex-boyfriend Joel (Charlie Hall)? Yeah, that too. We learn all of this pretty early on, as Finch begins to peel back the layers of Samantha’s journey into sobriety. 

    SDF Gallery PR Group 2 fe295SINGLE DRUNK FEMALE – Freeform’s “Single Drunk Female” stars Ally Sheedy as Carol Fink, Rebecca Henderson as Olivia Elliot, Sasha Compere as Brit Monclair, Sofia Black-D’Elia as Samantha Fink, Lily Mae Harrington as Felicia O’Brien, and Garrick Bernard as James Chambers

    The series, which is being labeled a dramedy, premiered January 20th on Freeform. In the season opener we meet a young raven haired Sam, as she plods down the glass filled corridors of her New York City high rise office, that could easily be any media company (think Mashable or Vox), taking swigs of vodka from her water bottle as she saunters in to her meeting, slamming her body into the door to open it. Sam greets her boss Nathaniel, played by the hilarious John Glaser (Hustler’s, Bob’s Burgers) with a firm “what’s up?” and mentions how unprofessional everyone is for being late.

    She's quickly informed that the meeting actually ended ten minutes ago; which sends her into a tirade of who is jealous of her, who has it out for her, and what the patriarchy is doing. Sam is quickly silenced when her boss states the obvious: “you're drunk.” 

    Instead of taking responsibility, she tries to avoid it and winds up getting into a highly comical, yet cringy, scuffle with him over a phone, resulting in Sam assaulting her now-former boss, a move that of course, gets her into legal trouble. 

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    Suddenly, Sam's most pressing issue is avoiding jail time, which she seems to serendipitously sidestep a few times. A feat her snarky probation officer Gail (Madison Shepard) likes to remind her of. The most reasonable choice for Sam to rebuild her life, is to ditch her delusions of grandeur, and return back home to her “smother” Carol, played brilliantly by 80’s icon Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club, X Men Apocalypse). 

    You’d think that losing your New York City writing job and returning home to live, would be enough to springboard one into a life of sobriety or for a dramatic teaching moment about the pitfalls of alcoholism, like in the tumultuous loop of addiction displayed in Lady Gaga’s rendition of A Star is Born.  However, Finch’s new series, which draws upon her own struggle with addiction, takes a deeper look at the succession of events that cause those suffering with addiction to end up where they are; and what it’s like to climb their way out. 


    In a Television Critics Association Panel (TCA) Finch  talked about how the series was ten years in the making. “I started writing this in 2012 before I got sober. I got sober and I realized it was about a girl getting sober,” said Finch in an interview with Deadline, who is now seven years and eight months sober, adding, “I called it a living script as it sort of evolved as I got more sober. 

    Finch also shared that she wanted the series to be about sobriety. Some of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous are rooted in altruistic pursuits like responsibility, awareness, and discipline. For those of us not indoctrinated into the twelve step culture, Sam’s sobriety may look alot like trying to cope in a world that is concerned about its bottom line, and not necessarily your feelings. Or just adulting. At times I found Finch’s need to dramatize normalcy somewhat predictable until around the eighth episode, when Sam's love interest James, (Garrick Bernard) unexpectedly relapses, along with a few other surprises. But that's sobriety, and Finch shows it well. The show succeeds most at amplifying normalcy and with the strong depictions of community most of us are looking for. By the sixth episode, you not only find Sam's metamorphosis endearing, but begin to question your own relationship with alcohol. For a moment, I know I did. 

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    Pulling it together and adulting for her own good isn't the easiest thing for Samantha to do. She has to payback Brit for the damage she caused to her wedding van although she's penniless. She has to apologize for taking her other bestie Felicia (Lily Mae Harrington) for granted, and tossing her into the drinking buddy category, instead of true BFF. Which is a no-no.At least she doesn't need to forge her journey to becoming a good person alone. Her biggest supporter is found by way of her wry, and overachieving sponsor Olivia (Rebecca Henderson,) and her long suffering wife Stephanie (Madeline Wise).   

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    Throughout each episode Olivia seems to magically appear at all times--especially when Sam needs her the most. Sobriety calls for her to walk away from triggering circumstances, humbling herself while working in retail, paying her debts and making amends.

    This series is timely, especially in the age of COVID-19 when so many people are rethinking their drinkinghabits and also looking to get sober. Watching Sam’s transformation over her year of sobriety, is inspiring. The bigger lesson centered around showing up as your authentic self, and finding love in all the right places.

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    Sam isn’t the most likable character at times, but fans will be drawn to her humanity and vulnerability.  Viewers will have to tune in to see if she has the courage to stay on track and work her program. Although Single Drunk Female didn’t chronicle the darker sides of addiction, it did a good job of capturing all the feel goods of friendship and starting over. The only drawback is that it wrapped up things a little too neatly. For instance, Sam quickly recovers her friendship with ex-bff Brit (which was a big forgive), successfully sidesteps her triggers, and becomes the home team favorite all before the credits roll. This is the stuff Hollywood thrives on– but it felt a bit too quick for me.

    Overall, I couldn’t stop watching because the writing is hilarious. Each episode is filled with beautifully flawed characters that will have you laughing and crying at the same time.

    This one is definitely binge worthy.

     Want more? Watch Single Drunk Female Thursdays 10:30/9:30c on Freeform. 


    Photos: Courtesy of (Freeform/Koury Angelo)