Imagine Eighth Grade through the lens of The Lonely Island. That’s PEN15, the new coming-of-age sitcom, produced by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone. Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, the series centers on two seventh grade besties who will tackle everything from bullies to crushes to first kisses, together. Like Eighth Grade, the show scratches at the itching awkwardness and crippling angst of this awful age. But it brings in a zany levity that makes it more hilarious than heartwrenching.
Set in the school year of 2000, PEN15 sucker-punches us with nostalgia. These 13-year-olds carry Trapper Keepers bedecked with Brad Renfro pics, wear Care Bears pajamas, and play with “Sylvanian” (those cuddly critter figures that came in families). The bad fashion of the era is embraced, making subtle visual gags out of baby tees, low-rise khakis, whale-tale-ing thongs, and cargo pockets weighing down wide-leg jeans and full-length skirts. But beneath the JTT posters and Slipknot t-shirts, there’s a story that’s woefully timeless, one of friendship, self-doubt, and complicated co-dependency.
Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone are more than best friends; they are each other’s lifelines on the booby-trapped bridge from childhood to adulthood. When Maya is declared UGIS (ugliest girl in school) by bullying boys, Anna will be her hypeman in the schoolyard retribution to come. When Anna frets over her first date with her first boyfriend, Maya will tag along for emotional support. When times are good, they laugh together and giddily duet on improvised silly songs. When times are bad, they’ll share a bathroom stall to eat their lunch away from insult-slingers and share secrets in cracking whispers. Their love for each other veers into obsession, where any time apart is seen as a rejection. This kind of co-dependence is pretty common among tween girls. PEN15 carefully captures the complicated nature of this kind of female friendship, where one’s identity is deeply tangled with their besties.You need them to reflect to you that you’re not the freak you fear. But this neediness can be an obstacle to self-discovery. And it’s one Maya and Anna will confront before the end of season one.
PEN15 also tackles the more embarrassing/retroactively hilarious aspects of adolescence, like the first fumblings into masturbation and the blossoming desire to be seen sexually. Netflix’s Big Mouth manages such taboo topics by making its characters literal cartoons. This live-action coming-of-age sitcom has plenty of child actors playing seventh-grade mean girls, dream boys, and frenemies. But the show’s central duo are portrayed by 30-something co-creators Erskine and Konkle, allowing PEN15 to dig into more salacious content without making audiences wildly uncomfortable. It’s amazing what a difference slouched shoulders, braces, and a bad bowl cut can make. At first, the juxtaposition of two fully grown women playing kids opposite real kids is jarring. But it neatly sets up the absurdity at play within this series, which is not about being a tween, but how it feels to be a tween.
The lunacy of adolescence is captured with surreal visual gags. In “First Day,” the girls return to school having heard a classmate grew boobs over the summer. When this newly busty peer turns around, the camera cuts to a close-up of massive tits jiggly provocatively under a modest polo shirt. Then, we cut back to a medium shot of the real girl, who is bustier than her peers, but not rocking the double-Ds we just saw dancing. Similarly, oversexed imagery and comedic cutaways are employed when Maya and Anna discover what it’s like to feel sexy thanks to a bright pink thong. And when Maya is panicked by her first period, her first tampon balloons in her palm to the size of a lapdog, deftly expressing how intimidating this moment is for her. Then, there are deliciously sincere lines like, “Not everyone’s in a professional Steely Dan cover band, DAD!”
Despite the show’s silliness, Erskine and Konkle create thoughtfully complex portraits of female youth. A season one highlight is “Community Service” sequence where the two take turns treating the school’s hallway like a catwalk, having found a sneaky shortcut to self-esteem. But whether they are offering caterwauling angst, all-consuming lust, or cringe-inducing awkwardness, there’s an earnestness and authenticity to their performances. When the girls determinedly decide they WILL get fingered for the first time in the same room by best friends, we flinch. When Maya asks Anna what’s wrong during a group hang, and in response, all she can muster is a mute but desperate “Stop,” we gasp. When they finally score a “first” they feel proud of, we may even cheer. Because it’s not that Maya and Anna are freaks, it’s that we are, or were. Or are. So, we’re not laughing at them, but with them, because who among us hasn’t felt like an ugly, unloveable pervert from time to time?
With a big heart, unapologetic zaniness, and a throbbing lady boner, PEN15 intrepidly explores the awkwardness, awfulness, and awesomeness of adolescence.
PEN15 is now streaming on HULU.