Is it possible to look back on our tweenhood years and not cringe? If you've watched Hulu's new show Pen15, the answer is a resounding yes. The show is created by, and stars, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as their thirteen-year-old selves, while their peers are portrayed by real middle schoolers, and the results are just as hilarious and poignant as they are awkward.
Pen15 captures universal adolescent moments like your first kiss, body issues, and... let's just say, "self-satisfaction." It's also a time capsule to the early 2000s, complete with dial-up internet, and love notes handwritten in gel pen. If you're like us and have already binge-watched the whole season, you need your next fix of nostalgia and awkwardness. Here are 10 Shows To Watch If You Liked Pen15.
10 Derry Girls
Derry Girls is a Netflix show set in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. This may sound depressing, but the show is hilarious. The political climate is a mere backdrop to the lives of Erin and her friends as they navigate high school. Bomb threats are inconveniences when it comes to attending concerts or going on dates...for those lucky enough to get one at all.
Like Pen15, Derry Girls features a tongue-tied Erin trying to flirt with her crush. A million thoughts swim in her head, but she's only able to string together a sentence that is half-English, half-Gibberish. Painfully, this is something we can all relate to.
The name says it all. Teenage life can be Awkward. We want to discover our identity and sometimes our peers can make that very challenging by slapping an wanted label on us. In Pen15, an unfortunate haircut earns Maya "UGIS" ("ugliest girl in school") status. Awkward has protagonist Jenna being tossed into the rumor mill when an honest accident looks like a suicide attempt.
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Just like that, her reputation is sealed. If Awkward is graceful about anything, it's capturing the teenage paradox of wanting to define our identity while blending in with the masses.
8 Red Oaks
Amazon's Red Oaks follows gawky David as he spends his college summers working at the posh, titular country club. Though David and his friends are well past puberty, they're also at an uncomfortable "in between". They're adults and society expects them to behave as such, but David and company still try—and fail—to swim the treacherous waters of living with parents, hanging onto meaningful relationships, and trying to find their place in the world.
One episode finds David trying to impress his girlfriend, only to come home and find his parents—half-naked and high on MDMA—have downed the Champagne he was saving. Our early twenties can be every bit as awkward as our adolescence.
Surviving high school can feel like being lost in the jungle without GPS. This is amplified for Atypical's Sam, a teenager on the autism spectrum. His experience may be different than ours, but Sam just wants the same things as the characters of Pen15, and all of us—friends, belonging, a romantic relationship.
Atypical nails the feeling of isolation and otherness that ironically is what makes us similar to everybody else. As Sam's friend Evan says, "Dude, nobody's normal."
6 Everything Sucks!
If nostalgia's what you want, this criminally short-lived Netflix series is just the ticket. While Pen15 is all about the Y2K, Everything Sucks! is totally nineties. Columbia House, Tamagotchis, and slap bracelets are present and accounted for. So are themes similar to Pen15's, particularly sexuality.
Both shows are on streaming platforms, giving them some freedom to explore mature topics. Pen15 and Everything Sucks! both do exquisite jobs of tastefully portraying teen sexuality. They capture the thrill of erotic discovery and stimulation...and the subsequent awkwardness of trying to have some "alone time" when your mom is calling you for dinner.
5 Broad City
Imagine the girls of Pen15 all grown up...er, imagine them playing women their actual age. That's Broad City. Besties Ilana and Abbi bumble their way through self discovery in New York City. The Big Apple, as seen on TV, can seem like high school to millenials. Everyone's always Instagramming some party we're not invited to, the best jobs are seemingly reserved for those with "connections", and we live in apartments so small, it's like we've been stuffed in a locker.
Despite all that, life is still pretty awesome if we have a best friend to share all our misadventures with.
4 Stranger Things
Stranger Things is known for being a sci-fi show but it's also a stellar coming-of-age story. Mike and the gang are the same age as the Pen15 girls and, in between running from monsters, they have lots in common. For the first time in their lives, they're dealing with romance and lust. The opposite sex, though desired, is every bit as scary as a Demogorgon.
While Pen15's Maya and Anna get picked on for playing with dolls, Mike and friends are the butt of a joke when they're the only kids who show up to school on Halloween wearing costumes. Sometimes everybody gets a memo on what childhood rituals are yesterday's news... except for you. Pen15 and Stranger Things capture this perfectly.
3 Sex Education
As teens, sex can seem like a scary unknown...unless you're Otis on Netflix's Sex Education. His mom is a sexual therapist, and Otis has been bombarded with TMI his whole life. The result is...the idea of sex makes him uncomfortable. However, with his unusual perspective, Otis finds himself as his school's unofficial sex guru, and his "clients" come to him with issues similar to those on Pen15.
Romantic rights of passage are events of cosmic proportions for the teens in both shows and knowing when you're "ready" can be harder than solving the Riddle of the Sphinx.
2 Freaks and Geeks
This cult show, full of eighties nostalgia, is the perfect reflection of adolescence. Freaks and Geeks offers gut-busting laughs as we vicariously re-live our youth through these complex characters. In both Freaks and Pen15, getting picked last, whether it's for gym class or Seven Minutes in Heaven, is as painful as a stab in the chest.
As the characters of these shows take their first steps toward adulthood, they definitely stumble along the way— when they take revenge on a bully one step too far or ditch their besties for a crush. Though Maya and Anna, and Sam and his buddies may want nothing more than to be popular, they are lucky to have the friends they do. Somewhere deep down, they know it too.
1 Big Mouth
Netflix's Big Mouth completely captures the grittiness of a horny, every-changing teen body. Whereas Pen15 uses adult leads for its more mature situations, Big Mouth is animated, so the sky is the limit for what they can depict. This freedom allows these shows to be two of the most accurate portrayals of adolescence ever.
The reality is, growing up is awkward. First kisses aren't accompanied by a trendy soundtrack and soft backlighting; they're sloppy, sometimes sweaty, and super-awkward. The same can be said for Big Mouth and Pen15...and that's why we love them.