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'PEN15:' A Cringe Binge for Those on the Fringe

I stumbled upon PEN15, oddly enough, because of my mother. She had read a review of it in the newspaper, a medium that I am too gamified to develop a routine of perusing, and told me that it sounded like it was right up my alley. Now having seen the show, I feel a little weird about her having been the one to tell me about it. It is a show about many things, mother-daughter relationships included, but if I chose to watch it with her, I think I might’ve puked. It's mortifying.

PEN15’s major sell comes in the experimental form of its performances: two 31-year-old women (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) play fictionalized versions of their 13-year-old selves while the rest of their middle school peers are portrayed by kids of that age. It’s a schtick that takes some getting used to; Erskine and Konkle don’t look ancient (and they are styled to really emphasize the unique fashion choices of the time period), but their rapport with their tween scene partners pulls no punches.


It must be said that the adolescents they employ are phenomenal: each acts out a familiar but hyper-specific persona with distinct command of the art – special credit goes to the charismatic Sam (Taj Cross), the delusional Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) and the truly insufferable Brandt (Jonah Beres). Even so, the F-bombs and innuendo, the discussion of wildly awkward topics, and some expertly choreographed scenes of intimacy are a lot to digest. The show contains a mystifying blast-from-the-past potency. The Hulu tagline is, after all, “middle school, as it really happened.”

If middle school is the armpit of your life, then revisiting it as an adult is a deep dive into the sweatiest, most claustrophobic years of cerebral development. The show’s two creators were not, in fact, childhood friends, but their meeting in college happened to be an aligning of the stars. Both harbored a fascination with their prepubescent behaviors and afflictions.


Neither represents themselves as angels; Erskine is particularly harsh with herself, which makes her character that much more intriguing. It’s incredible writing and acting to the highest degree, a level of introspection and self-awareness that most would never achieve in their lives (let alone want to achieve, as dealing with that embarrassment would be devastating). It is a show that reached into my deepest, darkest insecurities, provoked them, and then comforted me by saying “it’s okay, because we felt that way too.”

PEN15 is not for middle schoolers by any stretch of the imagination. It is TV-MA and assuredly so. I don’t think my middle school brain could’ve withstood any of the harsh truths echoed to me by the series, even though I probably considered myself mature at the time. But I think it is uniquely important that such unpleasant memories be depicted on screen. Recognizing where we come from, and how undeveloped the brain actually is when we are that age, is a critical reminder to treat young people with empathy and kindness.


It’s pretty rare to see middle school from the perspective of two girls, especially one like Maya, with her ADD and sexual curiosity and complex relationship with her ethnic identity. I truly felt like I was tapped into a different facet of her personality with each emerging conflict. Her immaturity can be exhausting, but her longing to be seen and loved is painfully resonant.

The series handles her frustration with being half-Japanese with remarkable deftness. In the very first episode, she is given a humiliating bowl cut by her mother and subsequently proclaimed by her male classmates to be the UGIS (Ugliest Girl in School), a nickname that follows her around for the rest of the series. She is a victim of outright racism as well as subtler microaggressions, even by her best friend. Maya is not always conscious of how she’s being belittled, but she always has a feeling in her gut that it’s wrong.


The season one episodes that stick out are “Posh” and “Anna Ishii-Peters.” In the former, Maya hides the Japanese elements of her home when hosting a group project. She then submits to being ordered around by her white group members "because she looks different." Anna goes along with it before she is corrected by Maya’s older brother, and she attempts to reconcile her transgression by staging a skit in the hallways calling out the racism in the school (even going so far as to initiate an ill-fated hunger strike). Maya attempts to find some community with the other Asian kids at her school with mixed results. By the end, the best friends have a surprising moment of mutual growth and Maya is able to forgive Anna.

In “Anna Ishii-Peters,” Anna comes to sleep over at Maya’s for a few school nights (truly the most exciting thing to happen when you’re a child) while her parents are at a “retreat.” However, the girls start to butt heads when Maya notices her mom giving Anna special attention. The episode is a transitionary one, as it introduces the conflict that is Anna’s parents’ divorce. Likewise, Maya discovers that her strong reaction may be hormonal in nature, as she starts her period for the first time. It’s an emotionally impactful episode, and it really helps showcase the split in the girls’ home lives that plays a major part in season 2.


Although season 1 delves into topics like masturbation, substance experimentation, and the wondrous confidence boost offered by wearing a thong for the first time (the two friends swap off a piece of stolen lingerie between classes in one of the funniest sequences of the show), season two takes seventh grade and its pitfalls to a whole new level. Not only are the stakes higher – season 1 ending with a school dance should tell you everything you need to know – but the show takes some fascinating creative directions. They have an animated special wedged between the season’s part 1 & part 2 split, a one-off episode about Maya’s mother (played by Erskine’s real-life mother Mutsuko), and a witchy, mid-adolescent crisis wherein the girls start “casting spells” to solve their problems.

The melodramatic roller coasters of angst are rawer than ever. Maya tries to understand why her visiting Japanese friend is seen as cute for her race while Maya is treated poorly for the same reason. The introduction of a spoiled new friend is relational poison and the ensuing sleepover at her house is a party from hell. The climactic school play in which Maya plays the lead role and Anna the tech director is fascinating not only because you get to observe the duo’s reclamation of their talents, but also because it gives them a chance to be seen as someone different. Both jump at the opportunity to escape their dreaded middle school realities. They’ve been shunned by their classmates and school isn’t offering much guidance or encouragement. Enter: the dreaded high school boyfriend.


It is in the second half of season two that the circumstances of the show become outright sad, particularly for Anna. She becomes the adult in the midst of her quarreling parents, and thus she begins to self-protect. She starts out by falling into a relationship with a nice-enough freshman who quotes Bruce Lee and always seems to be drinking from a flask (played by an IRL 35-year-old, if it’s any consolation). The red flags develop in time, and Maya pushes hard to maintain a position in her friend’s life, which motivates her to date his gross friend, Derrick.

The final two episodes are borderline traumatic. Erskine and Konkle have matched the Bo Burnham Eighth Grade level of cringe in their series more than a few times, but by playing themselves at that age, they are able to show some of the more unfortunate realities endured by adolescents with greater nuance. Neither was necessarily “forced to grow up too fast,” but there is an admission of desire that is matched by an instinctual stomach tightening that they choose to ignore. The direction (episodes are split up between the three showrunners, Andy DeYoung, and Dan Longino) pervades each little moment to devastating effect in a persistent conflict of what is felt vs. what is said.


The opening credits song speaks the truth of the show: “I am hiding. The you I show to you is just a lie. You take what you want. You give what you take.” Maybe a song by punk band Bikini Kill isn’t meant to be analyzed with such a critical eye, but I think the four verses can be applied to just about any instance when the two girls compromise their best interests to act like something they’re not.

The series taking place in 2000 is a key component in its success. Erskine, Konkle and Sam Zvibleman clearly know the Y2K era like the back of their hand, and the production design, costuming and slang reflect that. On a deeper level, they capture the burgeoning (soon-to-be constant) predilection with technological advancement that makes every moment seem fleeting. There’s an entire episode dedicated to the girls’ use of AIM profiles, and Maya’s brother receiving a Nokia is a subject of great discontent for her.


If the show was set in the 2020s, however, a lot of the interactions that the girls and their peers were having would happen through an application on their phones. I don’t mean to sound like a geezer, but even though youth behaviors tend to repeat themselves regardless of the time period, the social contract for young people to air their grievances in person has been breached. The social clashes just wouldn’t be as authentic.


PEN15 ended after its second season, a decision that was apparently motivated by COVID. It was due to have one more, but after delays, it seemed that Erskine and Konkle were moving on to bigger and better things. Playing one’s teenage self for too long could have some serious, long-term effects on the psyche. Although I’m disappointed that they were unable to tell more horrifically relatable stories about growing up and hating yourself, I am of the belief that running too short is better than running too long. It’s a prize because it exists at all.

The series has been massively influential for me and I think I have already begun to regard it with the same affection as my other favorite sitcoms. Maya Erskine is a hero in my eyes, and I know I will get even more out of her performance the next time I am in need of a hearty dose of cringe. I hope that people will see the show as a sort of rite of passage to realize how far they’ve made it since those horrible days of the worst years of their life. Erskine and Konkle are better than any psychologists I’ve ever read. I shall never again underestimate the power of PEN15.


-Lydia

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