ENTERTAINMENT
03/09/2019 08:00 EST

Life Isn't Perfect, But 'PEN15' Is

Hulu's show about outcast teens in the early aughts is as good as getting passed a note from your middle-school BFF.

Hulu
Maya Erskine (left) and Anna Konkle in "PEN15."

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly two decades since 2000, but watching “PEN15” makes that year seem like a long-lost relic. The new Hulu show, which follows two best friends navigating junior high, brings back dial-up internet, landlines, locker mirrors and nascent AIM relationships. Happily, it has more to offer than easy nostalgia.

What keeps it fresh is the twist in its casting: Adult women Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who created the show with “Take My Wife” director Sam Zvibleman, play the two main characters (also named Maya and Anna), setting an off-kilter tone for everything that follows. If watching teens freak out over a furtively passed note from a love interest is funny, it’s even more hilarious to see 30-somethings do it. 

Maya and Anna are social outcasts determined to make seventh grade their best year yet. It begins on a rocky foot, with Maya being labeled that year’s UGIS, or “ugliest girl in school.” It only gets wobblier as the duo face intimidating cool girls, young love, periods, masturbation, family drama and their diverging identities.

From “Big Mouth” to “Everything Sucks!” to “Sex Education,” there’s plenty of teen fare out there. So what makes “PEN15” worth your precious bingeing time? The specificity of the early ’00s references provides instant gratification for elder millennials, while the perspective that Erskine and Konkle bring to their characters elevates it beyond a simple “Remember when?” kind of show.

HuffPost writers Matt Jacobs and Jill Capewell gushingly address the question everyone has on their minds: Should you watch it?

Matt: I haven’t loved a comedy as much as I love “PEN15” since ... I don’t know when. Maybe the first season of “Orange Is the New Black”? The time Selina Meyer walked through glass? Our first glimpse of swole Chidi on “The Good Place”? Anyway, it’s been a while. How much do you love it, Jill?

Jill: Matt, I love it so much! The promise of gel pen references drew me in, but the love Anna and Maya have for each other — and the hilarious ways they show it — kept me there. Plus, I was in seventh grade as AIM was coming out and cargo skirts from Delia*s were cool, so I am probably the exact target demo for the show. I had major flashbacks when I saw Anna’s two face-framing wispy strands of hair.

There were so many perfect references to that time period in the early aughts, when the internet was new and clunky and the best thing we knew to do with it was ask each other “a/s/l?” in chat rooms. Maya’s “diper911” screen name, for example, nails the freewheeling, random nature of how we saw the World Wide Web back then and how we presented ourselves on it in turn. We didn’t yet view our social media personas as “personal brands.” Plus, lol, diaper emergency. How did it feel to see the awkward early teen years (let’s face it, we were all awkward) played back for you in such exacting detail?

Hulu

Matt: Such excruciation, but even more than that, it felt like a real swoon, honestly. Maybe it’s because I’ve had such existential dread about social media lately, but revisiting a world where AIM is the nearest source of anxiety was comforting in a way that transcends easy nostalgia.

“PEN15” is a show built on gimmicks, and it rises above every one. The off-kilter casting, the 2000 setting that requires clichéd Y2K-era signifiers, the whole “let’s revisit how awful middle school is” ethos that “Eighth Grade” did as recently as last year. Magically, it all works.

I think casting Erskine and Konkle gives the central characters a nuance the show otherwise couldn’t hope for; they bring a perspective to the roles that teenagers wouldn’t. What’d you make of them playing 13-year-olds opposite actual 13-year-olds?

Jill: I was also thinking that “PEN15” is able to stand out among the many “awkward teen years” offerings out there, and I think it is helped in part by having adults play the two main characters. For one, it’s delightfully absurd to see — I cackled when Maya and Anna were trying to cuss out an actual teen on their first day of seventh grade. Seeing adults posturing as brace-faced and bowl-cut adolescents never gets old.

And another component is that crucial perspective you mentioned. The audience is constantly reminded that this will end up just being a phase in these girls’ lives. Having Erskine and Konkle playing teenagers lends an odd believability to the series, as wild as the optics are: You know they lived as the outcasts they play on screen, so I can trust the foibles and emotional roller coasters the characters go through. Plus, it speaks to the fact that we never truly outgrow our weird teenage selves.

I was concerned about how they were going to pull off Anna’s first kiss — but some camera-angle magic took care of that.

One thing that really surprised me as I got further into the series was how much heart it has. The show is able to segue from pure nostalgic joy to resonant truths about growing up without feeling like an after-school special. The arc of Anna’s parents fighting more and eventually getting divorced reminded me how crushing that can feel when your parents are your whole world. What did you think of the show striking a balance between pure fun and these bald truths about getting older?

Hulu

Matt: “PEN15” does get bittersweet by the end, but I also love the touch of sadness that’s nestled into its humor. Its physical comedy ― Maya’s timpani solo, for example, or the girls’ hallway catwalk on the thong episode ― is “I Love Lucy”-level good. But even within those moments, I felt pangs of melancholy, in part because it reminds us of the intimacy inherent in adolescence. Even a great adult friendship lacks the connectedness of a bond based on youth, when you get to learn about the world alongside classmates and neighbors who are just as uncertain (even the ones who mask that uncertainty in bullying tactics). We don’t realize what our teenage kinships mean until it’s too late, and that’s something Erskine and Konkle tap into without ever saying as much.

Jill: I think you hit the nail on the head, Matt. It’s easy to brush off your teen years as a wasted time of being young and dumb, but it’s really when we start to become who we eventually are. What I think makes this show feel so revelatory is the respect it gives to aspects of teendom that don’t often get treated with importance. No stray feeling is too inconsequential, because it didn’t feel inconsequential then.

Hulu

Matt: That’s right. Things are only ridiculous with hindsight. An internet romance is serious business, and so is your first cigarette or your terrible haircut or your shared thong. A middle-school relationship can be almost entirely silent and avoidant and still feel like the most meaningful thing you’ve experienced, like Anna and her band boyfriend Brendan, who scribbles notes but can barely sustain a conversation.

The last few years have been a golden age for popular culture about teens who feel isolated from the world around them. But most of the genre has been character studies built around one protagonist (“The Edge of Seventeen,” “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade,” “Skate Kitchen”). Here we get to see how two girls’ lives intersect and diverge, and the way they vow to share every moment along the way. (“Broad City” is probably the aptest comparison, but that show has faced narrative limits that “PEN15” can more easily avoid.) It’s in that very togetherness that we see them as individuals just starting to figure out what sets them apart. The beauty, for us, is knowing how long and fruitful that journey will be. I almost don’t even want a second season because I’d rather imagine it for myself; the limitlessness is poetic, ya know?

Jill: I understand what you mean — on one hand, I want more of this great show, but on the other, I just want to imagine Maya and Anna side-by-side learning how to shave in the tub before the school dance forever. I don’t want them to age, even if they’re 31 in real life. We can’t go back to 2000 and, honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready to, but with “PEN15,” we can always pay a quick visit. That is, if our mom gets off the phone so we can use the dial-up.

This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.