A eulogy for Pen15, a perfect show about our imperfect past
Hulu's very great sitcom Pen15 starred co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as "Maya" and "Anna," 13-year-old friends surviving seventh grade in the year 2000. Erskine and Konkle were adults playing children, and whenever I watched an episode, I got stuck trying to figure out which woman was giving the best performance on television. Erskine played Maya with an alpha dork's tense confidence, always unsure if people were laughing at her or with her. It was a whole lot of ACT-TING with real purpose because the character was a performer, prone to spot-on Ace Ventura impressions. Konkle disappeared more behind Anna's perpetual slouch, mouth full of braces that made even the truest smiles look forced. They were both so funny, so awkward, so heartbreaking; don't make me choose!
Let's agree that together, they were pure TV wonder. Junior high was casual hell: Bullying, disinterested crushes, parents who just don't understand. Maya and Anna were each other's safe space, but one critical (even anti-heroic) thing about Pen15 was how they kept prodding each other's worst instincts. Parties, sleepovers, boys, a first taste of beer, first kisses that went apocalyptic: The girls seemed to feel, like many 13-year-olds, that discomfort was somehow the key to growing up. (Now was the time to do everything their parents told them not to do.) Anna and Maya convince each other to run away and then convince each other to go home: That's Pen15's last story, and its ultimate one.
In the last seven episodes, released last Friday, the climactic subject matter trends heavy: God's absence, cultural dislocation, class consciousness, lost love, mortality. There's a tendency to describe Pen15 with glowing arty-sitcom melancholy. So many cathartic hugs, so many rainbow gel pens! But this was a nasty show, too, boldly evoking the raunch of American Pie-era youth. Kids did things I've never seen kids do on TV. The leads were secret adults, which was safer for censors, but that meant many scenes felt like traumas revisited, with a generous wisdom that defied revisionist past shaming.
In the episode "Bat Mitzvah," I counted 13 laugh-out-loud Nazi jokes, including a riotous class session about the Holocaust which keeps becoming about how Becca really needs everyone to RSVP to her Bat Mitzvah, guys. In "Shadow," a friend visits from Japan. Maya has to translate for her, but Maya is a mixed-race kid raised in '90s suburbia who barely speaks Japanese. Gibberish ensues, true gibberish. When she pretends to say "Hector wants to play Crash Bandicoot: Warped with you and hang out" the subtitles make it clear she's actually saying: "Hector. Crash Bandicuu. PLEH. PLEH. SOTODU WAPU." The delivery of this scene is just wonderful: Maya's pretend confidence, her friend's baffled eyeroll, Anna listening patiently like she's taking notes.
A lot of Pen15 episodes rode that razor's edge, tempering offensiveness with absurdity and authenticity. In "Luminaria," Maya and Anna find themselves at a 24-hour Walk for Cancer. Yes, there are cancer jokes. Yes, the episode left me in tears. (Meanwhile, they also can't stop giggling at a funeral.) Maya and Anna were sweet and sincere, but what mattered more for Pen15 was that they were confused. Their lives were chaotic, rendered with impeccable Y2K details: Magazine cut-outs on bedroom walls, unopened boxes in a freshly-divorced apartment, sips of Crème de Menthe, frozen marshmallows coughed onto somebody else's hair. At school, they tried painfully to come off as cool — and Pen15 captured, better than any show I've ever seen, a certain god-like inhumanity in the popular kids. Hot or rich or athletically gifted, they were not evil but just freakishly indifferent, carelessly ruining whole weeks for Maya and Anna. (The real-kid actors were across-the-board great, especially Taj Cross as Maya's will-they-or-won't-they pal Sam.)
Maya keeps a secret folder for her alone time: Brad Renfro, a bare nipple, various fruits, desert dunes: Yes, kids, this was a sexual awakening before high-speed internet. What I remember most from the year 2000 is mess. American culture was body fluids and cargo pockets, everything baggy, jeans distressed. The average citizen had not yet self-optimized for infinite HD camera angles, so all the male musicians looked like boogers. There was more bad make-up, less bad Botox. Nonstop sex pervaded the media right alongside fervent religion: Maxim back issues in the supermarket within grabbing distance of a whole Left Behind shelf.
I sense from all directions an urge to propagandize the 2000s, revising the era into safe binaries, claiming cult hits as cultural supernovas, and isn't it nice that suddenly everyone always knew Timberlake was sludge? I don't know how autobiographical Pen15 was; maybe the show is secretly about the impossible dream of meeting your best college friend in elementary school. But as creators and performers, Erskine and Konkle wore their least defensible memories on their sleeve: Thongs, Wild Things, South Park tees, Santana's "Smooth." The finale is a quietly humane sexual horror story with some genuine LOLs and serious swoons. It's as disturbing as a French movie, yet somehow romantic enough for Technicolor.
Does it really have to be over? Hulu only just announced the show's ending last week, with hamhanded "leave the door open" language. There were COVID delays, and (more happily) near-simultaneous pregnancies for Erskine and Konkle. A third co-creator, Sam Zvibleman, exited for this final phase. Knowing nothing whatsoever about his vanishing, it strikes me that the first half of season 2 (which he entirely directed) sprawled through the supporting cast of other students. Whereas these last episodes don't spend much time at school, and the focus is back on the leads and their families. There's a whole focal episode about Maya's mom: A very good Before Sunrise-y breakaway tale, hurt only by the problem that "the Before Sunrise episode" is a 2020s sitcom trope. (Though it's amazing to see Erskine's own mother, Mutsuko Erskine, delicately play Maya's mom — one of many personal flourishes that gave Pen15 a homemade-diorama mood.)
The creators swear this was their planned ending. The first half of season 2 got a Best Comedy Emmy nod, and this half is even better. Still, I'm constantly talking to people who have never heard of it, or who know it exists but are too busy getting disappointed by Ted Lasso. Excellence helps with archival discoveries, and Pen15 goes out stronger than ever. On even some good sitcoms lately, the dialogue can feel strained and overwritten, with so much idiosyncrasy grilled out for maximum speed and minimum risk. Whereas I haven't quoted Pen15 very much because so many of its biggest laughs and most profound sads come from the madcap execution. Erskine and Konkle performed the incoherence of youth with a glee that felt improvised. "Daddy at the police station has his shift wrong, and done, and he has a gun on a holster, and he says we gotta go": This is how, in the penultimate episode, Maya tells Anna she is very worried about the latest terrible situation they've gotten themselves into. And Anna completely understands what she's saying!
Don't underrate the show's mystery, either. Pen15 got dreamier as it went along — dare I say it, a bit Lynchian? In the finale, something awful happens in a suburban house full of shadows. A single late shot reveals the house's address is "911," a rather specific number for a show about a lost age before history changed forever for America (and America's youth). The lovely ending weaves its own time-traveling spell, with Erskine and Konkle almost breaking character as Maya and Anna look to their future and their past. I wonder if that informs the whole creative process of Pen15, which honored the history of teen shows by pushing itself into new heights of experimentation and raw honesty. It turned into one of the best TV shows ever made: A portrait of childhood revisited that will demand rewatching when we're old and gray and still as confused as any kid.
Series Grade: A