In the last few years, audiences have received unprecedented insight into modern adolescence. Bo Burnham’s 2018 film “Eighth Grade” is an intimate and unflinching look at a young girl’s personal journey through the halls of middle school (written and directed by a man, no less), and Nick Kroll’s Netflix animated series “Big Mouth” has pillow fucking, menstruation musical numbers, and the severed head of Garrison Keillor — yet remains one of the more insightful and encouraging shows around.
Now we have ’90s period piece “PEN15” from Hulu, a live-action series from Lonely Island producers Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, with its its own peculiar cause for alarm: Despite being surrounded by a teenage cast, the show’s stars are played by two 31-year-old actors, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They could stick out among their baby-faced co-stars and turn the whole show into an extended parody — an “SNL” sketch that just keeps going, half-hour after half-hour, without acknowledging the weird core joke.
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But it’s not a joke; at least, it’s not treated like one. Co-written by Erskine and Konkle, along with series co-creator Sam Zvibleman, “PEN15” uses its older actors as an access point to discuss highly embarrassing aspects of growing up. There’s an episode about when Maya and Anna (each character is named after the actor playing them) first learn to masturbate. There’s an episode about the empowerment found in wearing a thong. The premiere focuses on vicious childhood insults, and the verbiage tossed around is dark and damning.
All these scenes are captured with the debauched eye of a teenager, emphasizing the hormone-driven intensity of anything embarrassing or ecstatic. But they also take advantage of having adults act out the most mortifying, sexual, or otherwise non-child-friendly moments. You couldn’t watch, let alone film, an actual teenager staring at her ass in the mirror as she discovers the authority given to her by an adult piece of underwear. You couldn’t show a teenager masturbating in the way Maya does — her obsession so cathartic and hilarious for everyone who’s gone through it or is going through it now.
In short, you couldn’t go to the honest places “PEN15” does without these two adults leading the cast. “Big Mouth” gets away with its own teenage chronicles because the kids are animated; here, they’re very real, and the show works because they’re treated that way. It helps, too, that Erskine and Konkle are so committed to their parts. Maya is the kind of kid who’s more likely to be ashamed of what she does, while Anna is always urging Maya to share everything with her. They want to go through everything together — from their first steps as seventh graders to their first kisses with boys — but the adolescent fear of being the odd one out can still separate the two best friends.
If anything, “PEN15” is too committed to its aesthetic. The number of times you’ll hear the word “like” borders on grating, even if the mid-’90s marked the rise of the persistent modifier. Occasionally, Erskine and Konkle will lean too far into their immaturity, overplaying the joke. These small things can push the series toward sketch territory, but they never edge it over the tipping point.
Without the emergence of “Eighth Grade” and “Big Mouth,” “PEN15” may have been seen as groundbreaking. For now, it falls comfortably between the two in tone and ambition — neither as empathy-inducing as Burnham’s film or as madcap as Kroll’s series. It also lends significance to the parents’ stories, but keeps them lurking in the background, informing the daughters’ decisions without betraying their personal agency. It’s sweet, sincere, yet unafraid to go big. Most of them land, but perhaps the greater accomplishment is showing just how many more strange, funny, and honest teenage stories are worth telling.
“PEN15” Season 1 premieres Friday, February 8 on Hulu.
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