The hook for Hulu’s R-rated middle school comedy PEN15 is that its stars (and co-writers) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, two adult actors, are playing fictionalized versions of themselves as 13-year-old girls wading into the choppy waters of life as a middle schooler. That means exploring not only the often uncomfortable social hierarchies of the seventh grade, but also concomitant thorny experiences of puberty, (potential) boyfriends, alcohol, drugs and all the awkward social (and not-so-social) interactions that stem from such a tumultuous time in a young person’s life. And while the idea of two adult actors playing middle schoolers may seem like Beverly Hills 90210 all over again, PEN15 differentiates itself by inviting the audience to be in on the joke, and to laugh at all the things Erskine and Konkle’s characters do in a show that if it had two actual tweens in the lead could never get away with.
Though the idea of two adult actors playing children seems like a jokey distraction on par with Martin Short’s 1994 comedy Clifford, Erskine and Konkle remain admirably committed to the bit, and the show itself is largely free from the kind of self-referential winking or fourth-wall breaking antics that would otherwise alter and potentially spoil the comedy. Instead, despite its title and apparent casting gimmick, PEN15 is a surprisingly earnest coming-of-age story that also just so happens to be a riotously funny comedy comparable to the likes of Superbad.
The series demonstrates its R-rated bona fides immediately, while also diving deep into its early 2000s setting. The pre-smartphone era affords Erskine and Konkle, as well as the show’s other writers, and directors, like Dan Longino and Sam Zvibleman, a chance to explore their characters through hyperactive telephone conversations, rather than resorting to watching them text or post videos to social media. This particular milieu also makes for some easy early jokes, like Maya’s older brother trying to get on AOL while she’s talking to Anna for what seems like hours. But while other shows set in a particular time period often give over to nostalgia for that era in one form or another, PEN15 uses the early aughts more as a means to an end, one that mercifully isn’t foregrounded in the story itself to the degree of, say, Stranger Things.
Instead, PEN15 is more interested in (and interesting because of) the trials and tribulations of a pair teenage girls finding their identities and growing, in fits and starts, into the people they’ll become as they enter adulthood. In some cases, that means giving up childish things, even if they aren’t necessarily ready to do so, and in others, exploring activities (drinking, drugs, kissing boys) they aren’t remotely ready for. The first season’s second episode, ‘Miranda’ gleefully examines the pitfalls and pressure of kids trying to grow up too fast, after Maya and Anna are mocked for their Friday-night ritual of developing soap-operatic storylines for their collection of Sylvania dolls and play sets. With their enjoyment of a childish escape now tarnished, the two invite themselves over to the titular classmate's house, where a cigarette, a can of beer, some air duster, and group of boys offer enough evidence to suggest Maya and Anna are probably too old to play with dolls, but definitely too young for any of the activities they engage in at Miranda’s.
PEN15 isn’t shy about making a potential first make-out session into one of the most uncomfortable (for various reasons that are obvious when Erskine or Konkle are acting opposite an actual teenager) scenes you’ll see on television this year, nor is it particularly reserved when finding humor in Maya’s ill-advised headlong rush into succumbing to peer pressure. But the show doesn’t aim to solely source laughs from watching its teenaged characters stumble into maturity; it also paints a convincing and often heartfelt picture of two childhood friends who are seemingly destined to grow apart as they age and seek new experiences for themselves.
It’s a staple of such stories — the influence of Superbad again becomes evident — but PEN15 differentiates itself by virtue of its characters’ both being young women, as well as the audience knowingly watching two adults in the roles of teenaged girls. The series smartly gives itself a lot of runway to work with by focusing on Maya and Anna at this particular point in their lives. Not only does it make the show’s main selling point funnier from a visual standpoint, but it also gives the series the one thing its characters need but can’t seem to find: a reason to slow down and simply enjoy being a kid for a while longer.
That PEN15 would manage to juggle raunchy R-rated humor with a more sincere depiction of leaving childhood behind is probably no surprise given that it’s also produced by The Lonely Island's Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone. The end result is a sometimes filthy but sweetly funny coming-of-age comedy.
PEN15 streams on Hulu beginning Friday, February 8.