If you did time in middle school in an era that wasn’t the late ’90s or early 2000s, I have no idea how PEN15 will come off to you. All I can say is that as someone who’s almost the exact same age as creator-stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the show feels like a time machine back to those deeply uncomfortable years. And despite its loving attention to 2000-era detail, from the Delia’s-style wardrobe to the soundtrack, I think it will appeal to anyone willing to revisit the hellscape of their teen years. Its comedy is more naturalistic than broad; think Welcome to the Dollhouse without the nihilistic streak.
A lot of the pilot’s power comes from the instantly convincing Erskine and Konkle, who fully commit to the portrayals of their younger selves without any winking or hamminess. I’d expected a lot of PEN15 to rely on the inherent comedy of two grown women playing children among a group of actual children. But despite their statures, you start to forget pretty quickly that they’re not actually kids.
The pilot takes place more or less over the course of one day, Maya and Anna’s first at suburban Trailview Middle School. Anxious about how they’ll be perceived by their fellow seventh-graders (but also desperate to be seen as having changed), they strategize outfits and conversation points with their crushes. Maya decides she needs to stand out more, so she gives herself a botched home haircut to get those piecey Sarah Michelle Gellar layers that were all the rage at the time.
Maya’s mom is horrified by the outcome, and insists on remedying it by giving Maya a bowl cut. Though Maya immediately knows that will make it worse, she offers only token resistance before falling into immediate, childlike passivity. (It’s the highlight of the episode, perfectly encapsulating the “screw you/I need you” contradictions of kids that age.) The disastrous do gets Maya branded as “UGIS,” or Ugliest Girl in School, a title that the seventh-grade boys have apparently been awarding to one very unlucky girl each year for decades.
Yet Maya’s suffering isn’t really played for laughs, unless you count the rueful chuckles of remembering a time when everything hurt so much. After the secondary blow of learning that her crushes Brandt and Dustin are the ones who stuck her with the “UGIS” moniker, Maya turns to her cool older brother Shuji, hoping he’ll beat them up. Instead, he helps Maya piece together a list of Brandt’s every vulnerability, starting with his uncircumcised “aardvark dick.”
When she finally gets to confront Brandt, Maya forgets her pre-scripted insults, repeatedly calling him a “midget piece of shit” before stumbling on a killing blow: “You’ve got an aardvark dick and that’s why your dad died!” Suddenly, the bully is the one collapsing in horrified sobs.
I don’t know if I’ve seen a show since Freaks and Geeks that has such a deep and immediate understanding of the way teens absorb and perpetuate trauma, a round-robin of hurt feelings hurting feelings. It gives PEN15 a strange and terrible power, as you constantly wonder whether the next thing out of a given kid’s mouth will stick around to traumatize its target for all their days. The bubbly soundtrack, full of classic pop tracks of the era like Mandy Moore’s “Candy” and Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” does nothing to dissuade the feeling of latent dread underlying the proceedings. It’s a remarkably specific feeling to conjure, and man, does it take you back.
The only part of PEN15 that feels a little less than utterly authentic is its depiction of Maya and Anna as eternally supportive besties — possessed of the kind of rock-solid friendship few people get to enjoy amid the ever-shifting alliances of the middle-school years. But it’s a strategic choice. As with Broad City, another show about two young women relying on each other to get through lean times, the strength of Maya and Anna’s friendship is what keeps PEN15 from crossing over the line between horrific comedy and outright horror. It’s the swallow of sugary Surge that helps all the teen angst go down.
While both actresses shine, Erskine is the clear breakout from the jump. From her piercing tears in the bathroom mirror after being labeled “ugly” to her remarkably dead-on impersonation of Ace Ventura–era Jim Carrey, she’s spectacular. Her Maya is sweet one moment, furious the next, a volcano of feelings that’s as likely to scream “Go fuck your mom!” as she is to slink into the folds of her Care Bears hoodie.
Ultimately, that’s what PEN15 is really about: the scared, willful seventh-grader that lives inside each of us, untouched by time. Hiring adults to play the part may make that subtext text, but the show is careful to respect that essential feeling, to preserve its power. I’m alternately excited and terrified to see where it’ll take our inner seventh-graders next.