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If you chuckled when you read the phrase Pen15 in the title of this review, or if you are between the ages of 30 and 38, I suspect Pen15 will hit your perfect nostalgic sweet spot. And if that first sentence doesn't apply to you, well, there's still plenty to love about the new Hulu comedy series even if you can't quite appreciate the late 90s/early 2000s references inherent in the show's setting (although the younger folks will likely get a kick out of seeing how weird the original AOL set-up was . . . yes, there really was just AIM, chat rooms, a couple websites, and email, once upon a time).
Pen15 hews closely to another comedy about the trials and tribulations of adolescent life: Netflix's cartoon Big Mouth (an utterly charming series that is worth a look). However, Pen15 has a different hook: it's about a bunch of middle schoolers, but stars two 31-year-old women (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, two of the show's three co-creators) acting alongside actual adolescents. Yup, you read that correctly. Erskine and Konkle play fictionalized 13-year-old versions of themselves alongside actual 13-year-olds. And it actually works out pretty great.
Pen15/Photo by: Alex Lombardi/Hulu
While touching on the major moments in adolescence - discovering your sexuality, getting your period, experimenting with forbidden things like alcohol and cigarettes, realizing that the kid in your class you thought was disgusting a few years ago is actually pretty cute - the series hits each point and integrates it into the most important element of adolescence: friendships. Think back to your middle school days. What stressed you out the most? I'm betting if you were a girl it was the question of what the hell was happening with your friends. And that's what's at the heart of the series thus far: how friendships grow and change as we do. Sure, it's not groundbreaking work, but it's so crucial to what made middle school such a minefield for so many. Any given day, depending on the flood of hormones or who was dating whom, friends could go from sharing everything to being on opposing sides of a battlefield. I know I would never want to head back to middle school and relive those years, and I suspect many of your would agree.
So, why watch a show about it? Well, because Pen15 takes those adolescent foibles and turns them into relatable comedy. Konkle and Erskine are excellent as awkward teens trying to figure out their place in the world and the social hierarchy of middle school. They've also surrounded themselves with a strong cast of young actors, particularly Taj Cross as their best guy friend Sam (loosely based on the show's third co-creator, Sam Zvibleman). Occasionally, you forget you're watching adults play kids, surrounded by actual kids. But Konkle and Erskine lean into the surrealism of the situation when necessary, heightening the comedy, which allows the show's emotional beats to land even harder.
Pen15/Photo by: Alex Lombardi/Hulu
If there's a negative to the show's set-up, it's that we spend almost all of our time with the characters of Anna and Maya, and only encounter the younger supporting cast when they interact with one of the two leads. This means we get a fully formed look at the two girls, but don't get to know the rest of the show's cast of characters nearly as well (another major difference with Big Mouth, where the show is structured to allow for deep dives into all of the show's central characters). Middle school is certainly a rough time for girls, but it's not a cake walk for boys, something that is only hinted at throughout the season. My hope for the show, if it gets a second season, would be that it would branch out a bit more and expand its focus to other characters.
That being said, there's an awful lot to like in the first season of Pen15. Come for the nostalgia hit (I still can't quite believe that my youth has now become fodder for nostalgic moments in television shows, but I guess I'm old now), and stay for the universal look at just how awkward and ridiculous middle school was for everyone (and just how little these major issues really mattered in the grand scheme of things).
Pen15 premieres on Friday, February 8 on Hulu.