‘Pen15’ Mines Middle-School Hell for Awesomely Awkward Humor

At first, Pen15 plays like a sketch comedy idea ill-advisedly stretched out to sitcom length. Co-created (along with Sam Zvibleman) by stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — you might vaguely recognize them from… that thing, or… that other thing — the new Hulu comedy features the 31-year-old actresses playing themselves at age 13 in the year 2000, interacting with a cast largely made up of actual middle schoolers. Significant effort has been made to approximate what they looked like at that age (photographic evidence of which appears in the show’s opening credits, scored to “Demirep” by Bikini Kill), with Konkle sporting braces and Erskine an unfortunate bowl haircut, but they are still unmistakable grown-ass women dressing, talking and acting like adolescent girls — and flirting with actual adolescent boys.

The first couple of episodes of the series take the most superficial approach to the premise, as “young” Anna and Maya repeatedly humiliate themselves on the opening days of seventh grade through their attempts to hang with the popular girls or ask out boys. With the benefit of hindsight after watching the whole wonderful, 10-episode season (which Hulu is releasing in its entirety on Friday), I wonder if Erskine, Konkle and Zvibleman felt like they had to work the more obvious jokes(*) out of their system. Or if they thought the audience would need to do the same before they could accept a reality where these adults are unquestioningly treated as peers of kids whose puberty seems still at least a year or two away. (Konkle looks like Brienne of Tarth next to all the puny boys her character Anna is crushing on.) Because once you get further into the season, the laughs start to go much deeper — and so does the characterization.

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(*) Never mentioned in dialogue is the show’s title, an infamous schoolyard prank where a handwritten version of it winds up reading a lot like… well, you get it.

It’s the third installment, “Ojichan” (a Japanese term for grandfather; Erskine, like the fictionalized Maya, is half-Japanese), where the gimmick begins to bear real fruit. The girls have been introduced as besties who intend to do everything together forever, but their hormones turn out to be on different schedules. While Anna is still relatively childlike, Maya discovers the wonder and majesty of masturbation, to the exclusion of everything else in her life. Where it might be unbearably uncomfortable (and potentially criminal) to watch an actual 13-year-old girl going to the lengths that Maya does, Erskine’s fundamental adulthood provides just enough of an emotional barrier to make Maya’s actions — and the real and supernatural consequences of them — hysterically funny. Similarly, when the girls gain enormous, oversexualized confidence while taking turns wearing a classmate’s stolen thong, it works because the characters are by this point believable as middle schoolers, even as the presence of the actresses eliminates the creep factor.

(In that way, it’s not dissimilar from Netflix’s Big Mouth, which also has actors in their thirties — and beyond — playing hypersexed middle schoolers. In that case, the animation, and the surreal ways in which the kids’ urges manifest themselves, provides a similar degree of distance that Erskine and Konkle provide here. And Pen15 has its own degree of surreality, like an episode where a ghost literally haunts one of the girls at an inopportune moment.)

Both leads commit fully to the awkward physicality of adolescence, well beyond the clothes and hair and other accoutrements. They are simultaneously self-conscious and energetic, gawky and defensive. Their true ages never entirely vanish, thankfully, but within a few episodes they seem utterly plausible in these roles. (It helps that the actual kids are written to be much more worldly and crude than Maya and Anna; when a friend invites them over to watch the raunchy camp classic Wild Things, they’re the only ones taken aback when Denise Richards and Neve Campbell start living up to the movie’s title.)

The more physically convincing they become, the more emotionally rich and fascinating Pen15 turns out to be. It’s primarily a balls-out, Broad City-ish comedy throughout, but it also evolves to become keenly observant, wise and empathetic regarding the fraught nature of being a friend, a daughter or just a girl of that age. When Maya throws a tantrum in front of her musician father (Richard Karn) or Anna tries to tune out obvious evidence of her parents’ marital strife, it feels utterly real, even though it’s women in their thirties cosplaying as their younger selves. In the midst of all the talk of periods and getting to various bases, the season deftly showcases how easily Maya can be made to feel like an outsider by her white classmates, or how each girl tends to get wrapped up in her own drama at the moment the other most needs her. The ninth episode, where Maya becomes jealous of how well her mother gets along with Anna during an extended sleepover, might be TV’s most observant take on adolescent female friendships (and relationships between moms and teen daughters) since My So-Called Life, even when you factor in the casting gimmick here.

Hulu wisely made this one of its binge-release options, rather than dropping it on a traditional schedule like they do with Handmaid’s Tale and some others. While the first couple of episodes have their moments, they’re also so broad and one-note that they could easily scare off viewers who couldn’t be bothered to come back a week or two later. This way, the barrier to keep going is incredibly low, and watching a bunch of episodes in a row makes it even easier to acclimate to the idea that these women really are a pair of 13-year-old girls who just look oddly adult from certain angles. And once the illusion starts to feel solid, the real magic of Pen15 begins. I was ready to dismiss the show as clever but not for me after those first two episodes, and it became one of my favorites of this young year by the end of the tenth.

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