Pen15 premieres February 9th on Hulu.
[Ed. Note: Being that TV and City is on a bit of a hiatus, this article has not been edited.]
By Chris Flanagan
It’s extremely rare and exciting when art manages to accurately capture a journey or experience so perfectly speaking to something specific to you while also being able to still appeal just as strongly to a larger audience. Many people view the same thing while taking away very diverse interpretations and messages from it resulting in a collective following and admiration albeit for a myriad of reasons.
Pen15 is exactly this form of art.
Before you brush me off, let me attempt to explain. On its surface, Pen15 is a show centered around Maya and Anna, two teenage 7th graders in 2000, as they try and navigate the perilous environment that is middle school. Crushes, friendships, rivalries and more are tested as the duo simply struggles to survive from one day to the next. It’s discomfort and fear that is all too real as almost every one of us has had to experience it on some level during these formative years. We all know the feeling of wearing something new and quietly hoping people notice for the right reasons or enduring an embarrassing moment as others continually point it out to you throughout the day. We all can empathize with realizing a crush and attempting to impress them sometimes with disastrous results.
All of this and more is explored with painstakingly great detail by Pen15’s creators (and stars) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. as they are able to perfectly encapsulate what those exact fears and excitements were when entering the pivotal years of middle school in the early 2000s. Every peripheral detail; the clothing, the language and most importantly the music, are focused on which creates this incredibly personal time capsule of what it was like trying to survive before high school. While this time period might be relatable to some, others might see it as a disconnect from truly enjoying the show, however, I would argue that this show is wonderfully able to find comedy within very realistic experiences that are, in fact, timeless. The first episode subtly put these clichés on display through candid conversations about first kisses or next steps, the “cool teacher” with a guitar taking roll that has spent time in Japan and the social value of a well-timed cutdown during a fight. We’ve all had that teacher right? Because I’ve had several.
Simply put, Pen15 is my humor that also manages to touch on just the right nerve containing awkward adolescence. I feel somewhat guilty distilling its effort, but it often resembles a perfect blend of Broad City meets Eighth Grade which is close to the highest compliment I can afford it outside of calling it perfect. Sure, it has its flaws but they are easily overlooked because of how strongly and effectively the show’s depiction of adolescence and our inherent nature to belong is conveyed. Pen15 is funny, awkward, emotionally powerful and relevant and I cannot encourage you enough to give it a try, especially those that experienced middle-school in or around the 2000s. There should be a “cringe warning” before the show because no matter how cool you might be now you definitely stumbled through middle school and Pen15 doesn’t let you forget it.
I give Pen15 an A-.