From real-life best friends Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle comes PEN15, a Hulu Original comedy about the trials and tribulations of being an awkward kid in middle school. The title itself should have clued you in, but this show is full of raunchy, uncut humor and oftentimes overly crude content. However, in the midst of all of the inappropriate jokes and cringe-worthy moments, the series also carries a heavy sense of sentimentality—showing the real heart and soul from the creators that went into making this show.
Erskine and Konkle, comedians that are both currently 34 years old, play 13-year-old versions of themselves in order to show “middle school as it really happened.” While both women are beautiful in real life, they must have one hell of a costume and makeup team on set, because their PEN15 characters perfectly emanate all of the awful, clumsy looks of a typical middle schooler. Erskine’s bowl cut, Konkle’s braces, and their endless wardrobe of early 2000s Disney Channel-esque outfits all contribute to creating a collective sense of “damn, I hope I didn’t look that bad back then” for the audience. As my friend likes to put it, they are “tough to watch” at times.
The actresses portray middle schoolers Maya and Anna, two “13-year-old social outcasts in the year 2000.” Maya Ishii-Peters is a half-Japanese, half-American girl with a quiet and sensitive personality. While she spends most of her time discreetly observing her classmates, she sometimes acts out with her Jim Carrey-inspired class clown behavior, leading to hilarious and very goofy scenes that will make you audibly laugh out loud (my personal favorite is her drum solo in S1E4). Maya often butts heads with her Japanese mother Yuki, who is played by Mutsuko Erskine, Maya’s mother in real life. The relationship between the two is an authentic portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship during one of the most difficult phases of a young child’s life, and while the pair argue frequently, they also demonstrate a strong relationship of support and familial connection.
Anna Kone is Maya’s best friend, with a similarly timid and sensitive personality. While Anna is more mature and not as silly or weird as Maya, she is also not as strong-willed, and gets tied up with peer pressure and bad influences as a result. For a majority of the series, Anna is preoccupied with her parents’ frequent arguing and eventual decision to divorce, which in turn influences her behavior at school and the way she treats her peers. While the two girls have their own distinct personalities and vastly different lives at home, the power of their long-lasting friendship shines through, even on their worst days. Much like J.D. (Zach Braff) and Turk (Donald Faison) from Scrubs, Erskine and Konkle’s real-life friendship is highlighted through their genuine performances as best friends on PEN15.
One of the best components about this series is the inclusion of actual 13-year-old actors as the supporting characters. While Erskine and Konkle’s bad hairstyles and mouth gear make them look exceptionally close to being 13, they both simultaneously blend in with and stand out from their young co-stars. The other kids in Maya and Anna’s class, who range from popular boys to mean girls to nerdy friends, really look the part because they are, well, still in middle school. Konkle in particular sticks out from the rest because of her height, so it’s a pretty funny visual when Anna towers above her classmates at her school’s choir performance, or when she attends a sleepover with the much shorter Maya.
Despite being 13, the rest of the cast does a great job interacting with the (actually 34-years-old) main characters. The “mean, popular girls” are snappy and rude, the “cute boys” are indifferent and boorish, and the “nerdy friends” crack crude jokes with them at the lunch table. Despite the massive age difference, all of the actors have great chemistry with each other, and give pretty outstanding performances. From comical scenes like horribly awkward first kisses, to much more serious themes such as casual racism, the interactions between the protagonist pair and their classmates feel like a truly accurate representation of the middle school experience.
Although Maya and Anna are best friends, conflicts arise between them on a frequent basis, making their relationship feel more realistic than a picture-perfect TV relationship. They face everything from getting rejected by a crush to a manipulative third best friend, and while they face some really tough times at school, they always manage to get through it together. Both girls are flawed and still figuring things out like any pre-teen would, but despite their fights and arguments, their friendship always prevails. The portrayal of their friendship will probably feel familiar to almost any viewer, and while there are many upsetting moments throughout the series, there are several laugh-out-loud moments as well.
So what makes this series stand out from the rest? The high school comedy genre has been done time and time again, and shows like Big Mouth have already snagged massive popularity in the streaming scene. Consider this: while media like the American Pie movies and Netflix’s Big Mouth series focus on drawing in viewers and laughs through the use of purely degenerate humor, PEN15 actually takes the time to craft emotionally-charged relationships and show raw, painful scenes that honestly reflect just how hard the pre-teen years can be.
One episode that stands out in particular is “Posh”, the sixth episode of Season 1. Maya and Anna participate in a Spice Girls-themed group project, but when the half-Japanese Maya tries to claim the role of Posh Spice, the other girls (who are all white) say she can’t be Posh because of her race and “tan skin.” Afraid to speak up, Anna goes along with the girls’ racist remarks, and Maya is too confused to defend herself. The episode tackles an extremely difficult subject, and while Maya and Anna’s friendship is tested yet again, their resolution at the end ties together well with the representation of a painfully real dilemma. Read more on that particular episode here.
To conclude, while PEN15 has its fair share of cringe-worthy and uncomfortable moments, its honest sentimentality and efforts to portray all of the gross aspects of middle school (which we’d much rather forget) make it a funny and entertaining show to watch… but maybe when your parents aren’t in the room. If you’re looking for a quick TV series to binge, the 30 minute episodes are perfect for you, and you’re sure to laugh at the exceptionally goofy things that happen throughout the plot. If you aren’t too keen about living out your worst middle school moments, then you’ve been warned: PEN15 does not shy away from anything.