It is Aug. 28, 2000, and everything is happening for the first time. First kiss, first party, first internet, first dance, first R-rated Blockbuster videotape rented with some older sibling’s borrowed driver’s license. Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) are two best friends starting seventh grade, that special becoming-a-teenager moment when everything is so wonderfully, terribly new. And the riveting magic of PEN15 (premiering Friday on Hulu) is that the 10-episode debut season makes every familiar adolescent milestone feel like a riotous new discovery. Here’s an impossible masterpiece of teen TV that is authentically raw but also dreamily weird, a goof-off LOL comedy full of traumatic middle-school melancholy.
PEN15 is built around an unusual conceit. Erskine and Konkle are adults, co-creators of the show with Sam Zvibleman. They play 13-year-olds; the other kid characters are all child actors. Sounds bizarre, but the leads give such committed performances that the gimmick fades immediately. They seem to be re-enacting autobiographical versions of their own younger selves — Erskine’s own mother plays Maya’s mom! — and they inhabit the just-right gangly confidence of very young people pretending to be grown up, imitating dance moves from music videos, swearing like someone just invented bad words.
They are each other’s constants through the miserable variables of junior high. Their dedication to one another represents love beyond words. But they are childhood friends at the moment when very young teenagers begin to aggressively set aside childish things. At an age when everything is changing, can their friendship stay the same?
The period-piece details are specific without being distracting: cargo shorts and Devon Sawa posters, Trapper Keepers and Bizkit chic. In the series premiere, Maya and Anna arrive at the first day of school with tremendous confidence, crushing on the hottest boys in school. Multiple tidal waves of social terror crash on their heads. A couple dudes hint that they like Maya. Anna accidentally smacks one dreamboat’s face with a well-placed kickball. “You don’t even look bad with blood on your face!” she tells him, trying to be flirtatious.
Bullying ensues, but the first smart thing about PEN15 is how it sidesteps the usual clichés of teen cliquery. Desperate for help, Maya runs to big brother Shuji (Dallas Liu), who teaches her how to swear like an eighth grader. This series has a clever zigzag approach to teen emotion, playful when you expect it to be sincere, heartbreaking in the midst of hilarity.
The supporting cast is great. Mutsuko Erskine gives a remarkably sensitive performance playing herself, basically, as Maya’s patient mom. Liu is some Platonic Ideal of the Older Sibling, wise and annoyed. And Maya’s father is… Richard Karn! From Home Improvement! You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Richard Karn scatting. Meanwhile, Anna’s mom (Melora Walters) and dad (Taylor Nichols) keep fighting, a difficult marriage glimpsed in kid’s-perspective slivers, sheets on the couch Dad slept on, dinner table arguments about Chinese takeout.
The time period has been rendered with loving detail, but the humor goes beyond lame referentiality. We watch in horror as some Spice Girls roleplay goes way wrong. The popular girls declare that Maya has to play Scary Spice because, well, Maya is the only nonwhite kid in the crew. Then they tell her she has to play a servant, because she’s the most “tan.” Soon, Anna’s asking AskJeeves, “Why is racism a thing?” while Maya’s staring at her Sailor Moon poster full of cartoon blondes, crying into the mirror as she tries to pull her eyes wide open. “I wanna choose which Spice Girl I’m gonna be!” Maya demands, a plea for playground colorblind casting that brought a tear to my eye.
There’s a standout episode in which Maya and Anna steal another girl’s thong, an iconic piece of underwear that leads them on a wild journey of self-reinvention. “Burgeoning sexuality” might sound like a potentially freaky theme for a show where adult performers have romantic subplots with teen actors. And yet, there’s a sweetness in the way PEN15 takes the girls’ puberty as a nonchalant fact of life. A storyline about masturbation features surreal flourishes — a ghostly grandfather, a Ouijia board — but it builds to a fascinating conversation between Maya and Anna.
And then there’s the whole episode about watching Wild Things, that classic piece of rental trash, honored herein with cockeyed wonder (and deconstructive sorrow) as the epitome of hypersexualized ’90s pop culture. The specificity is microscopic; the kids even hum the Wild Things soundtrack! The music throughout this season invites nostalgia for the TRL era: Lit, ’N Sync, K-Ci & Jojo, wow! But the show also captures something ineffable about the Y2K era, the feeling that being young really was this undiscovered new country, a new kind of youth accessed via technology no parent remotely understood. At one point, Maya and Anna spiral into AOL, falling for mystery men with screen names like FlyMiamiBro. It’s very funny, and a good reminder of how the internet then was this frontier universe of eternal Stranger Danger.
Erskine might look familiar from comedies like Insecure and Casual, while Konkle was a series regular on Rosewood. With PEN15, they’ve given themselves star-making roles. Maya is the bolder of the two girls, always pushing forward into ever-freakier realms of young adulthood. Erskine radiates a peculiar mix of sardonic nerdly swagger: Maya might be a misfit with a bowl cut, but she has a killer crowd-pleasing Ace Ventura impression. Whereas Anna has a heart on her sleeve and a smile full of braces, and Konkle has some quiet close-ups that are just devastating. PEN15 is a low-key series full of casual whimsy, but the first season builds gracefully to an emotional (and hilariously awkward) climax. “I feel, like, older,” concludes Maya. It’s a line infused with bittersweet triumph. On PEN15, growing up is exciting and maddening. Maya and Anna can’t figure out everything — or anything, really — but at least they’re confused together. A
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