The adolescent coming-of-age story is having something of a renaissance. Despite actual teenagers being able to create content for themselves with the advent of YouTube, TikTok, and other social media channels, adult creators are still looking backward to their own youths to give the kids of today a guide for navigating their own awkward years. Sex Education, Eighth Grade, and Big Mouth are all recent examples of the trend. Also, if millennials have provided one export to the pop culture world at large, it’s nostalgia. Just graze through the glut of BuzzFeed’s ‘90s-obsessed content or Twitter’s wealth of yesteryear-inspired memes to see that an entire arrested development generation is hooked on revisiting their childhood glory days.
Hulu’s new comedy PEN15 (if you don’t get it, you clearly didn’t attend public middle school), covers both trends in one fell swoop, with a hell of a gimmick used as a further hook. Produced by Andy Samberg’s The Lonely Island, PEN15 is co-created by and co-stars Maya Erskine (Casual) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood) as 13-year-olds starting the seventh grade. Never mind that the pair are actually 31 in real life, they channel their younger selves so thoroughly alongside a cast of actual 13-year-olds that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching adults. The gimmick is funny in and of itself, but it’s their unwinking commitment that really sells this show.
Set in the year 2000, Maya and Anna instant message boys on their dial-up Internet, choreograph Spice Girls routines, and make plans to see Coyote Ugly by telling their parents that they’re actually seeing Chicken Run instead. Between the soundtrack, which features era-appropriate bangers like Mandy Moore’s “Candy” and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” and the pre-9/11 fashion choices (all of the boys are rocking hideous necklaces), PEN15 is a nostalgia-buffet for anyone born between the years of 1986-1994. That being said, the show provides more than “Remember when?” sight gags and seriously drills into the rites of passage that suburban American kids experience going from pre-teens to teens.
Maya and Anna are determined to experience their firsts – kisses, sips of alcohol, cigarettes, ect. – together, no matter what. Their co-dependency and #bffgoals feel like a riff on younger, somehow even more awkward versions of the Broad City duo. Careening through one mortifying moment to the next, Maya and Anna try on every insecurity imaginable and bear the brunt of the cruelness of school children as an unpopular duo. Still, PEN15 accurately shows how little perspective bullied young people have in situations like this, as Maya and Anna take their own opportunities to tear kids down every chance that they get. Middle school is a dog eat dog world, folks.
Though most of the time PEN15 is delving into first boy-girl relationships like a live action Big Mouth, the series is at its most poignant when it’s exploring weightier issues like Maya first noticing racism against her as a half-Japanese American or Anna grappling with her parents’ fighting. Also, as someone who grew up with two older siblings in the house, I appreciate the exploration of Maya’s relationship with her brother, which varies from hostile to protective. If I have one complaint, it’s that the show doesn’t spend enough time exploring its secondary characters, like Maya’s brother or her neighbor Sam, inspired by PEN15 co-creator and director Sam Zvibleman, instead keeping the focus tight on Maya and Anna’s perspectives.
However, the teenage melodrama, silly on the surface yet deeply serious to our central duo, is cringe-comedy gold and expertly sold by our leads. Growing up is hell, and PEN15 reminds us of each of its seven layers. Just like a 13-year-old’s mood swings, this show will make you laugh, break your heart, and have you ruminating on your own awkward years all through the span of a single episode.
All 10 half-hour episodes of PEN15 are available for streaming February 8 on Hulu.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.