The coming-of-age show is a mainstay on television, running the gamut in quality and genre, from The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks to the recent 13 Reasons Why. Hulu’s PEN15 (yes, just like the joke you used to make as a kid), the latest addition to the great pantheon, is something special and fits right in with the past greats.
Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman, the show stars Erskine and Konkle as two best friends navigating middle school. It’s the year 2000 and they’re fresh into seventh grade, dealing with the braces, the boys, the hormones and the burgeoning online culture. PEN15 excels at taking the viewer back in time, drawing on universal awkward experiences and feelings. Even if you weren’t in middle school in 2000, you can absolutely relate to what Maya and Anna (the characters) are going through. That’s what makes PEN15 so excellent.
What makes PEN15 work, and pretty much makes it the complete opposite of 13 Reasons Why, another show that captures the “magic” of being an adolescent and can make viewers feel like they’re right back in school, is just how real PEN15 feels…even though the two stars are in their 30s. PEN15 works its magic living in the awkward comedy realm. The only fantastical aspect here, as opposed to 13 Reasons Why where just about every single terrible adolescent thing happens to the students of Liberty High, is the adult actors and creators playing kids.
“If you saw an actual 13-year-old going through some of these traumatic experiences, it might not be as fun to watch because you’re like, ‘That poor kid.’ Whereas if you have us as adults playing it, they can be like, ‘Oh, that’s uncomfortable, but you are not actually experiencing this. Or you did, but you got through it,'” Erksine told Vulture.
The 10-episode first season doesn’t just serve up cringe-worth early aughts fashions, it tackles relatable issues through the lens of humor. There’s an episode about racism when Anna realizes she unknowingly participated in racist behavior with a group of girls in regard to Maya (who also didn’t realize what was happening).
Throughout the show, Maya struggles with her racial identity, her changing body and sexual desires, while Anna deals with her parents’ crumbling marriage, her first boyfriend and her first—spoiler alert—terrible first kiss. It’s all done with a comedic flair, PEN15 isn’t afraid to linger in the uncomfortable and awkward territories the creators—and viewers—experienced in real life.
“As a young girl, you don’t see that it’s okay,” Erskine said in a Vulture profile. “I mean, to this day I have to [masturbate] under the covers. It’s ingrained in me. When I’m exposed, I feel a sense of shame.”
Konkle added they wanted the show to be as real—and uncomfortable—as possible. “All of the secrets,” Konkle said. “The things you pretend aren’t happening.”
A particularly standout episode of the season is “AIM,” an entire episode devoted to firing up AOL Instant Messenger, chatting with friends and even strangers by way of the classic chat room. Viewers can feel the sense of thrill Maya and Anna do as they poke around in a room for “hotties” in their community. The way the show perfectly captures all the emotions and awkwardness involved in meeting a stranger online, and then trying to in person in the episode is almost uncanny—and that ability is unlike anything else on TV today.
The show seems almost exclusively designed for millennials in their 30s, but the themes and experiences of growing up remain universal.
If you’re brave enough to revisit—and potentially enjoy—your adolescence, PEN15 is there for you.
All episodes of season one are now streaming on Hulu. No word on a second season, but if there is one, the creators told Vulture they would keep the characters perpetually in seventh grade.