Alibi V.28 No.6 • Feb 7-13, 2019 

Idiot Box

Tween Spirit

“PEN15” on Hulu

In retrospect middle school was a ridiculous time. At the time, of course, it was a hellish torture for tweens, sandwiched between the prepubescent freedom of elementary school and the faux responsibility of high school. But looking back on it now, funny stuff. Maya Erskine (“Betas,” “Man Seeking Woman,” “Casual”) and Anna Konkle (”Betas,” “Maron,” “Rosewood”) remember that time all too vividly, serving as the creators/writers/stars behind Hulu’s semi-autobiographical tragi-comedy “PEN15.” (And if you can’t translate that title, just put yourself in a 13-year-old mindset.)

Produced by Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone), the series reads like a painfully honest, R-rated version of “Degrassi Junior High.” The funny-smart concept finds the adult Erskine and Konkle cast as 13-year-old versions of themselves—surrounded by a cast of actual 13-year-olds. The ladies don braces and a tragic, rainbow-colored wardrobe to play dorky, underdeveloped pals Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, navigating their first year of middle school, circa 2000. (Cue the Mandy Moore theme song.) The clueless BFFs wander into school on their first day, expecting it to be overflowing with adventure, discovery and opportunity. Instead, it’s filled with kids far cooler and way meaner than our heroines.

Maya and Anna mostly spend their school days dealing with the newfound pressures of boys, cigarette smoking, boys, unfortunate haircuts, boys, watchful parents and boys. Bound as much by their overwhelming awkwardness as by their lifelong friendship, the girls vow to experience every milestone middle school has to offer together. (You’re my rainbow-colored gel pen,” Anna tells Maya. “Everybody else is just boring black or blue ink.”)

From the pilot forward, the writer-creators immediately and unflinchingly hone in on the most awkward coming-of-age moments. They’re also wise enough to know that “best friends forever”—despite what we thought at 13—isn’t really forever. There are moments when you sense the differences in Maya and Anna’s relationship and the cracks that will eventually send them off to different colleges and different lives. Cringeworthy as the show is at times, it’s leavened by a genuine sense of heartfelt sympathy.

Having Erskine and Konkle (both 31) play 13-year-olds could have been gimmicky. Or uncomfortable. (Think “Strangers With Candy.”) But it works beautifully, here—mainly because the two stars are so deeply in touch with their inner 13-year-old selves. The casting also serves as a bold visual reminder that that awkward 13-year-old—confused about the opposite sex, freaked out over body issues, lacking confidence and struggling to establish a unique sense of self—never really goes away.

Funny and painful, relatable and real, “PEN15” is a sincere shoutout to the gangly, nerdy, uncomfortable teen in all of us. Middle school is over and done with. You survived it. You might as well laugh at it.

Season 1 of “PEN15” starts streaming Friday, Feb. 8 on Hulu.