The Pitch: It’s the year 2000, a time filled not with the jetpacks and flying cars promised in decades past, but instead gel pens, dial-up Internet, and the crushing anxiety of 21st-century adolescence. For 13-year-old best friends Anna (Anna Konkle) and Maya (Maya Erskine), two awkward outcasts entering the pubescent gauntlet of seventh grade, it’s one of the most bittersweet years of their lives. Whether they’re taking their first furtive steps into the world of AIM chatrooms, or discovering the transformative power of a stolen thong, Anna and Maya always manage to stick together — even when the world around them is a pretty shady place.
31 Going on 13: While teen coming-of-age shows set in nostalgic decades are a dime a dozen (Strangers With Candy, Freaks and Geeks, Netflix’s sadly short-lived Everything Sucks!), PEN15 adds another intriguing element into the mix: the 31-year-old Konkle and Erskine, creators and showrunners along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman, play tween versions of themselves. Fitted with ungainly braces and retainers and all the crop-tops and low-rise jeans early-aughts fashion had to offer, the visual gag alone is enough for PEN15 to stick out from the rest of the pack. Maya, with her bowl cut and slumped shoulders, cuts a particularly adorkable silhouette, Erskine squeezing every drop of comedy from the ungainliness of her own teenage look.
But of course, the effect is deeper, funnier, and more interesting than that. Just as the adult Konkle and Erskine stick out like sore thumbs from their age-appropriate costars, the in-show Maya and Anna don’t fit in at their school. Anna (‘Na to her friends), with her lanky frame and wallflower personality, fits the prototypical “shy horse girl” archetype. Maya, meanwhile, is more openly insecure, not just about her looks (the first episode involves her trying to get off the UGIS — or Ugliest Girl in School — list) but the Japanese-American heritage that makes her stand out in a class of mostly white kids still armed with the racist jokes of a South Park-influenced culture. The disconnect isn’t just funny, aided by Erskine and Konkle’s assured comic performances; it’s a deliberate simulation of the dysphoria we all felt as preteens, trapped in warping bodies we no longer recognized, never feeling like we belonged no matter how often we tried to slip into acceptability.
She Bangs: Teen shows that highlight the dark, fumbling comedy of adolescent sexuality are a bit of A Thing right now — first Big Mouth, then Sex Education — but PEN15‘s particular angle is surprisingly fresh,as Konkle, Erskine, and Svibleman dedicate entire episodes to assorted pheromonic phenomena. Maya discovers the joys of marathon masturbation, only for her mother (played by Erskine’s real mom) to point out that their grandfather is “always watching.” (“Even when I’m like… napping?” she asks.) The girls steal underwear from one of their bratty classmates, kicking off a cycle in which they promise to return it “tomorrow” after they finish sapping it of its empowering energy.
PEN15 is refreshingly honest and straightforward when it comes to the giddy excitement of teen desire, and the wide-eyed terror that comes with it, and paints both with an uproariously presentational brush. A montage of Maya inspecting her freshly-stolen thong is accompanied by awed choral chants, while her AIM chats with ‘Flymiamibro22’ are depicted as a rushed, excited conversation between Erskine and a handsome model whose image she Googles (sorry, Yahoo! Searches) to approximate what he looks like. It’s Erskine that gets most of these showier moments — hers is the brazen Ilana to Anna’s, to apply Broad City rules — but she’s an absolute show-stealer, raunchy and vulnerable in equal measure.
This isn’t to say that Konkle isn’t operating on an equal level to Erskine, miraculous as the latter may be; they’re just serving different layers of their addictively sweet dynamic. Anna is shyer, more reserved; the fleeting glimpses we get of her home life are a sea of passive-aggressive snipes between her mother (Melora Walters) and father (Taylor Nichols), which moves her to seek justice and rightness in all the wrong ways. She’s a perfect foil for the impulsive Maya, leaving little doubt that they’ll remain best friends for life. While the real-life Erskine and Konkle grew up 3,000 miles apart, their chemistry (cultivated over a decade of off-screen friendship) makes them infectious to watch together. You’ll believe it when Anna tells Maya, “you are the rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils.”
Oops…I Did It Again: While PEN15 is a pitch-perfect teen comedy first and foremost, it doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the tougher issues. In one of the season’s best episodes, having realized that she allowed Maya to be taunted by hurtful racist jokes for a school project, Anna vows to do something about it: “I’m on a hunger strike until racism has ended.” For her own part, Maya doesn’t quite know what to make of the jabs, even playing along just to feel included. The incident opens up a complicated can of worms for both girls, Maya shying away from her identity because she considers herself “barely Japanese” and Anna trying to find something to do with her white guilt. By the time the episode forces them to confront the issue, PEN15 confirms its stated position that the strongest friendships can overcome anything.
The Verdict: While lots of shows take on the jungle of adolescence, PEN15 makes the most of its high-concept premise to deliver a stunningly sweet, funny treatise about those horrible, fantastic years. Erskine and Konkle manage to elevate their self-impressions to tragicomic masterworks (Erskine in particular is a star in the making), bolstered by the kind of stammering dialogue that made Eighth Grade such an insightful portrait of growing up. It’s hard enough to capture the squirming embarrassment of middle school so adroitly, but Erskine and Konkle manage it with the kind of confidence that proves they’ve lived it.
Where’s It Playing? PEN15 is currently drawing the Cool S all over your notebooks, over on Hulu.