The first time I watched Big Mouth, I thought, Okay, this is the only way to make a truly frank, no-holds-barred TV show about middle schoolers.
But it turns out that there is another, non-animated approach that also works. It’s the one taken by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in PEN15, a new Hulu series that the two co-created, along with Sam Zvibleman, and in which they star as middle-school versions of themselves. In case this still isn’t clear: Erskine and Konkle are 31-year-old women who play seventh-graders in a ten-episode season of television in which all the other middle schoolers are played by actual middle-school-age kids.
The fact that this unusual, semi-autobiographical stroke of casting works is a testament to Erskine’s and Konkle’s innate understanding of preteen-girl behavior and their ability to translate their real-life friendship into a bond that provides the foundation for this very funny, cringey coming-of-age comedy. With its attention to the details of American life in the year 2000, idiosyncratic protagonists, and mix of brutal honesty and gentle poignance, PEN15 is an ideal blend of Freaks and Geeks and Napoleon Dynamite. It’s also heavy on imagery and references that tap into millennial nostalgia, millennials being the demo most likely to fall hard for this series. That said, the show is so relatable and well-written that even if you’re too old or too young to have hit puberty around the time of Y2K, you’re still likely to be charmed by it.
The first scene of the series, which starts streaming Friday, finds Maya and Anna gabbing on the phone, trading gossip about what’s happened to their classmates over the summer. “I heard that Connie M. grew double Ds her last night at camp,” Maya says authoritatively. “It, like, happened in the middle of her sleep.” They’re also buzzing about their first day of seventh grade, which both predict will mark the beginning of the best year of their lives. Unfortunately, the first day of seventh grade suggests that forecast may need to be revised. After being dubbed the ugliest girl in school and getting into a fight with a boy she has a crush on, by day two, Maya is already tearfully declaring: “I don’t want to do seventh grade.”
But do seventh grade they must, which provides us the opportunity to watch Maya and Anna navigate school concerts, embarrassing parents, AOL Instant Messenger relationships, petty popular girls, first kisses, and early experiences with masturbation. PEN15 doesn’t focus nearly as exclusively on pubescent sexuality as Big Mouth does, but it’s certainly part of the landscape, a dicey proposition considering that the boys Anna and Maya are interested in are portrayed by actual boys. The show handles that strategically, though, and in a way that really could not be pulled off if two grown men were pretending to be preteen boys opposite actual young girls. (That’s always going to seem predatory, no matter how it is handled.)
The only significant physical contact between the two leads and their objects of affection comes in the form of slow dances; a first kiss, shot in a way that clearly implies that Konkle and Brady Allen, who plays Anna’s first “boyfriend” Brendan, never actually lock lips; and a scene where the two girls get to second base with another classmate in an extremely unsexy way. Most of the hormonally driven exploration is confined to the girls’ own experiences. In one episode, Maya, having discovered masturbation, goes on a rampant humping and rubbing spree, then grapples with feelings of guilt about it. In another, they get their hands on a thong that belongs to Heather (Anna Pniowsky), the most popular girl in their grade, and take turns wearing it once they realize that the skimpy underwear gives them the 2000 equivalent of big dick energy. These are almost-women trying to figure out how to navigate their emerging sensuality. But the great love of both of their lives, ultimately, is each other.
It is remarkable how easy it is to forget that Erskine and Konkle aren’t actually kids. That’s due in part to their own youthful appearances. Erskine is petite, given an unflattering, childish bowl cut, and wears a retainer. Konkle sports shiny braces and, though quite tall, frequently slumps over or crosses her arms, as if she’s trying to hide her height, which is exactly what early bloomers do in middle school. Beyond those cosmetic things, they also project a naïveté that makes it easy to consider them immediately as their characters. Konkle has a gift for casting an innocent, fantastical glaze over her eyes, especially when daydreaming about a crush or imagining the prospect of winning tickets to see B*Witched from Q102. Erskine, who previously demonstrated her range on Hulu’s Casual, is fluent in teen speak, adding extra “uhs” to the end of certain words when she’s excited or annoyed. (“Oh my God-uh,” “Mom-uh,” “Get out of my room-uh,” etc.) She’s self-conscious yet so amused by her own comic sensibility that she has no qualms about making herself the center of attention, especially when that involves doing her Ace Ventura impression and talking out of her own butt.
Together, the two share a giddy, whispery intimacy that will look familiar to any girl or woman who ever had a BFF. That intimacy can be fragile, though. When something happens to shift the balance between Anna and Maya even slightly, the relationship can rupture. In the sixth episode, when the two work on a school project about osteoporosis that involves making a Spice Girls video, several of their classmates jokingly treat Maya, whose mother is Japanese, like she’s a second-class citizen because of the color of her skin. This leads to a rift between Anna and Maya, one preceded by Anna handling her white guilt in the most year-2000 way possible: By going to Ask Jeeves and typing “Am I racist?” in the search bar.
Those throwback-style details provide much joy in PEN15. “AIM,” an episode that revolves around the girls’ first foray into instant messaging, will take you right back to the days when the sound of digitally opening and shutting doors were a regular feature of your life’s soundtrack. That episode also just might blow the minds of those who never had to use the home landline to access the web. (“You couldn’t use the phone and internet at the same time?” No, we couldn’t! You have no idea how hard life was 19 years ago!)
But the most joyful thing in PEN15 is the relationship between Anna and Maya, which is a refreshing testament to the role girls play in propping each other up during a period of life when every rug they’ve ever known is pulled out from under them with little warning. In the finale of what will hopefully be the first of several seasons of PEN15, Anna gets to stay at Maya’s for a couple of days while her parents are out of town. As soon as Anna arrives, the two explode with irrepressible glee that plays out in a montage of them running around the house and acting silly to the sound of the song “Dreams” by the Cranberries.
It’s the perfect musical accompaniment for a moment that captures the absolute bliss of spending unlimited hours with your best friend. “I know I felt like this before,” sings the late Dolores O’Riordan as the girls squeeze into the same T-shirt and practice a dance they choreographed together. “But now I’m feeling it even more. Because it came from you.” PEN15 understands that feeling, and knows exactly how to make you remember what it felt like, too.