Middle school was hell, but "PEN15" makes me (almost) want to go back

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves, braces and all, in this essential Hulu comedy

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published March 2, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in "PEN15" (Alex Lombardi)
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in "PEN15" (Alex Lombardi)

[Note: Some spoilers ahead for season 1 of "PEN15"]

If the Bad Place architects built a hell just for me, it would be a screening room filled to capacity, playing all of my most embarrassing moments from middle school on a 24/7 loop. The worst would likely be the times I didn’t even realize I should have been embarrassed until I hear the rest of the room erupt in laughter. Hell is other people witnessing you at your seventh grade worst.

Reliving the most absurd years of adolescence on purpose would require a strength I can’t possibly fathom, but Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine went there with their fearless creation “PEN15” (now streaming on Hulu), a hilarious and heartfelt series about two awkward best friends starting seventh grade, still young enough to act out epic dramas with their Sylvanian figures but determined to do all of the grown-up things now, together. Konkle and Erskine play those girls, also named Anna and Maya, themselves.

It sounds gimmicky, but it works. “PEN15,” which Konkle and Ersinke co-created by Sam Zvibleman, doesn’t look or feel like “Strangers With Candy,” where the gag was written into the script, with Amy Sedaris' Jerri Blank returning to high school in her 40s; nor is it like “Wet Hot American Summer" or for that matter, every teen soap from "90210" to "Riverdale." I didn’t realize Konkle and Erskine, the lone adults-playing-kids in the cast of actual kids, weren't just over 18 but actually in their 30s until after I devoured the first episode. They don’t exactly look like they fit in with their younger co-stars, but neither do they look like women simply trying to look a few years younger. It’s more uncanny than that, and the result is, fittingly, more awkward.

Lanky and brace-faced, Anna, clocking in at a head taller than the actors playing her classmates, hunches over in dead-on embodiment of every girl who suddenly finds herself towering over the boys she's crushing on. Maya's bowl cut and retainer age Erskine down as well, ridiculously but — and this is crucial — not inauthentically so. Maya is prone to kinesthetic explosion — the episode in which she discovers masturbation contains Olympic-level self-love scenes that put "American Pie," long the gold standard, to shame — while Anna moves with the tentative precision of a girl who is determined not to take up even more space than her body already demands. Together, especially in their choreographed dance sequences, so earnest and mechanical and unabashedly aspirational, they produce some of the finest physical comedy on TV.

Much is made in our culture about the specific awfulness of middle school girls, and “PEN15” doesn’t try to gloss over the relentless social jockeying and casual cruelty of that age; the coterie of lip-glossed popular girls and limp-eyed jocks whose approval Maya and Anna covet are portrayed in devastatingly accurate detail. But the show also, crucially, transcends mean-girls territory, showing also how sincere in their compassion and attuned to unfairness seventh graders can be, even if they aren't always sure what to do about the overwhelming feelings that can accompany their growing consciousness and loss of innocence.

Much like its cool aunt “Broad City,” the principal relationship in “PEN15” is the friendship between Maya and Anna, who go into their first day of seventh grade determined to do everything together, including bases first through third with the boys of their choice. Their optimism about how amazing being a teenager is going to be when compared to childhood is naive but touchingly so — the exceptional suckiness of middle school isn't typically recognized as such until it's comfortably in the rearview mirror anyway — as is the sheer force of their desire for experience, sexual and otherwise, so often depicted in pop culture as the enterprise of boys, not girls.

From the first episode, in which Maya is cruelly dubbed that year's UGIS — Ugliest Girl In School — which means Anna is  . . . at least not that, the show takes pains to depict how maintaining a best friendship of equal footing through the tumult of adolescence is more of an endurance sport than a tandem ride. Maya, who is half Japanese, is made the butt of racist jokes, and Anna inadvertently makes things worse — epically so — when she tries to help. Anna gets a boyfriend, sort of, while Maya embarks on an obsessive AIM flirtation with a stranger who turns out to be closer to her than she thinks. The girls endure certain humiliations and triumphs together — it's still unclear which category the unforgettable thong escapade would fall under — but as their lives grow more complicated, their differences begin to emerge, and every space between them starts to feel like a gulf. Anna's parents announce their impending divorce, leading Anna to confide in another child of divorce instead of Maya, whose functional and loving family Anna adores. Maya gets her period before Anna does, and can't bring herself to admit that she crossed that bridge first. And yet they get to close out the season in something that looks like triumph, accomplishing two major milestones together, on their own strange terms, just as they wished.

In those moments especially, the show slips out of its Fremdschämen comedy to indulge in the pure sentimental pleasures of its puffy-painted unicorn soul. Watching these two girls love each other with the ferocity of the as-yet-unbroken heart is a reminder that middle school girls are indeed wonderful creatures, and their capacity for intense devotion should be treated like the strength that it is, not a design flaw to overcome.

I moved around a lot as a little kid, which meant I didn't have the opportunity to forge the kind of deep-rooted single best friendship from childhood this show portrays. I got good at making new friends at every stop instead, and when we finally settled I did make friends in middle and high school that I have to this day. But that one girl who knew me from my very earliest unformed self, who would instantly recognize if a person I tried to become in seventh grade wasn't the real me? "PEN15" shows me the value of what I missed. It almost makes me want a do-over with a single, special, rainbow gel pen of a girl — cut from the same cloth as the women I have been lucky enough to befriend as an adult — by my side through all the petty social trials we had to flail through.

Not literally, mind you. New Kids On the Block, whose album "Hangin' Tough" soundtracked by own awkward seventh grade year, might have released a new single this week — an homage to the eternal appeal of the boy band, no less — but thankfully the rest of us don't have to go all the way back to middle school, or even play middle schoolers on TV, to honor our inner 13-year-olds. We can leave our most painful moments of figuring it out in the pages of yearbooks stashed in storage spaces where they belong, thank god. But that feeling of doing something for the very first time, with a close friend by your side, is one worth returning to as an adult. Make a plan. Treat whatever it is, no matter how minor, like a priceless rite of passage. And swear to each other that whatever else in life happens, you two will always share this moment, one you'll never forget.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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