For the purpose of making a point on the internet, please enjoy these story tidbits from my adolescent life:
Once, my friend wanted to find out what her crush really thought of her. Naturally, I struck up a conversation over AIM with him to get the scoop while my friend sat right next to me hoping for the deets.
My eighth grade birthday was the worst of my life, in part because some boys threw baby carrots at me for no apparent reason.
In sixth grade, I got a major feminine stain on a super trendy floor-length khaki maxi skirt. Rather than providing empathy, the school nurse scolded me for not having a pair of back-up pants stored in my locker for exactly this kind of nightmarish occasion.
What’s the point in sharing these stories with you, the sweet people of the internet? Well, if I were to guess, I’d say a lot of you out there have some similar stories. Stories of silly things you remember doing as a tween, mistakes you made with friends, clothes you can’t believe you wore, and embarrassments that changed your life.
The creators of Hulu’s comedy series Pen15 understand that and sometimes when you look back at these kinds of stories, all you can do is laugh. The show follows two middle school students, Anna and Maya, through their everyday lives in the year 2000. There are fashion faux-pas, misguided protests, run-ins with the popular crowd, and all kinds of other big moments that define the awkwardness of adolescence.
What Makes Pen15 So Special?
The characters of Maya and Anna are played by the show’s creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. That’s right: a couple of 30-something women are playing the roles of seventh graders. But the rest of the middle school characters? Oh yeah, they’re actual tweens.
This dynamic of 30-year-olds acting like they’re 13-year-olds alongside other actual 13-year-olds can bit a bit jarring at first. However, the actresses are so committed to embodying the realities of life as a seventh grader that soon it’s easy to forget that that they haven’t been in middle school for a long time!
The juxtaposition of Anna and Maya’s adult selves in a junior high world actually enhances the comedy and strangeness of Pen15. For example, one of the defining characteristics of puberty is the feeling that your body is both so far ahead of and behind where you feel like you are at any given time. How perfect is it, then, to have actors whose adult bodies are at odds with the emotionally extreme inner life of seventh graders?
Another important thing about Pen15: the show doesn’t shy away from sharing the realities of living through puberty That means that for every silly dance and discussion of gel pens, Anna and Maya also talk about kissing, masturbating, and periods! Watching actual kids talk about these realities would be rough, but it’s easier to watch because Pen15’s creators and stars are adults who are reflecting back on the highs and lows of middle school.
Puberty Means High Stakes All The Time
One part of Pen15 that makes it so unique is that the stakes are always pretty high for the characters, even as viewers know that in five years or five minutes many of Maya and Anna’s problems won’t matter.
Maya’s older brother is teasing her at the dinner table? Time to RAGE!!!
The more popular girls are being cliquish during a group service project? Can you believe The AUDACITY?!
Maya corrects Anna on dance moves they’ve choreographed to their favorite song. THE NERVE!!
For better or worse, Pen15 captures the high-intensity emotions of the micro-crises that come with middle school life. Sure, most of these micro-crises don’t stick with us years later. But if we’re honest, sometimes the scrunchie we never gave back to our BFF and the time we were snubbed from a party will stick with us.
The drama doesn’t end there, though. In the mix of all the hilarity and frivolous problems, Maya and Anna go through actual struggles and growing pains that come with becoming an adult. They experience rocky parental relationships, the difficulties of recognizing and living with racism. The plotting of Pen15 shows that yes, the world often feels like it’s falling apart when you’re young. But sometimes, those feelings and fears are warranted.
For those who weren’t raised on early internet speak, the headline for this is roughly translated as “Best Friends Forever, Love Ya Like A Sister.” Those two acronyms roughly sum up the relationship between Maya and Anna—these two are each other’s whole world.
Of course, sometimes deeply intimate friendships can be, shall we say, not so healthy. Viewers are occasionally given insight to the codependency and chafing closeness that can come from having a single BFF in the orbit of your social life.
For the most part, though, Pen15 chooses to celebrate and lovingly appreciate the unique circumstances of an adolescent best friendship. Maya and Anna are two goofballs who haven’t yet had their worlds shaped by expectations of how someone should act in friendships. They match clothes with one another, pass encouraging notes, and literally cling to each other. As adults, most of our social lives are, thankfully, wildly different from our middle school circles. However, Pen15 gives us a chance to wistfully look back and remember what it felt like to be so deeply yourself in close friendships.
Maybe you’re still in touch with your middle school bestie. Maybe someone else has become the pillar in your life. Or maybe the concept of best friendship isn’t for you and you’d rather be surrounded by numerous buddies. No matter the situation, Pen15’s honest depiction of close friendship will likely make you want to text your closest companions to share your love for them!
So if you’re looking for a new comedy to enjoy that’s full of wacky performances and emotional honesty, check out Pen15! The second season just dropped on Hulu, so it’ll be a bunch of fun seeing what kinds of antics Anna and Maya get up to next!