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.
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!
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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Allie Lawrence graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a B.A. in Theatre Arts and English. She loves dogs, laughter, and The Great British Bake Off. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @0riginalliety.