Middle school can be challenging for many reasons. There are body changes, in-fighting between cliques and the early bloom of romance. Hulu’s new comedy “Pen15” understands all of this and turns it into brilliant, cringe-inducing comedy. However, it takes these insights further. “Pen15” realizes that one’s teenage years are the first time we start to see the world for what it really is. As we understand ourselves and our own lives, we see what’s wrong with our parents, teachers and other classmates. Creators Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine, and Sam Zvibleman wrap all this up in a delightfully retro package, honoring the transitional year of 2000.
Anna (Konkle) and Maya (Erskine) both enter 7th grade wanting to experience all their firsts together. They envision their first kiss, first drink of beer, first cigarette, first everything. However, middle school isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, especially for two gawky girls who can’t seem to penetrate the ever-elusive popular crowd. Anna, a band nerd trying to escape her squabbling parents, fends off attractions from one classmate as she pines for the cutest boy in school. Meanwhile, Maya sports an unflattering bowl cut that gets her branded “UGIS” (ugliest girl in school). As she enters puberty, Maya learns how to embrace her urges and new feelings towards boys.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. The casting of adults Konkle and Erskine as our 7th-grade protagonists absolutely works. The show, directed by Zvibleman expertly crafts visual gags that accentuate the divide between Konkle and Erskine and the rest of the young, age-appropriate cast. These girls are meant to be outcasts. Konkle and Erskine establish this outsider nature both from their size and strong performances. Additionally, the casting shows that, in some ways, we never grow out of our awkward middle school selves. The emotional and physical scars from this formative time inform who we become as adults. It also gives us a starting point for our journey into adulthood.
The subject matters present in each episode give both actresses room to shine in their performances. One episode in the back half of the show, “Posh,” examines how racist attitudes can emerge in middle school. In a class project, the popular girls do not cast Maya as a Spice Girl, but rather as a service worker, because of her race. This leads Anna, a white girl, to “get woke” and lead a misguided awareness demonstration. Konkle expertly brings to life white feminism at work as Anna tries to prove in selfish ways how she understands racism. Meanwhile, Erskine takes us on a journey of discovering one’s status as a minority. Even as her character initially gives little thought to her cultural background, she develops pride in her heritage as it comes under fire.
Many shows have used their period setting as a cheap bid for nostalgia. “Stranger Things” began as an earnest and welcome 80s pastiche. However, as the tactic was repeated to diminishing results, the nostalgia wore thin. “Fresh Off the Boat” uses the 90s as a fun punchline, but little more than that. “Pen15” could’ve fallen into either of the two camps (and might veer there in future seasons). However, the show perfectly understands how the dawn of the digital age started to change the way teens interacted with each other. A pitch-perfect episode in the season centers around Anna and Maya signing up for AIM accounts. The technology of the time factors into the challenges of interpersonal connection that Anna and Maya have. On top of that, the soundtrack, clothes, and accessories all build an incredibly uncanny portrait of 2000.
Despite being so specific to the year 2000, the show achieves a universality around the experience of middle school. This echoes what made Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” so riveting in 2018. Both pieces, though 18 years apart in terms of setting, find humor in the horrors of middle school. Yet, they do so while taking the girls’ concerns and problems as seriously as they do. A boy calling you ugly or getting caught drinking or masturbating might as well be the end of the world at this age. There’s humor in that. However, these emotions of fear, panic, and shame are all too real and distressing. Watching these qualities in adult actors only further sells through how realistic this heightened emotional level is.