PEN15 is a Hulu Original television series that follows the thirteen year old versions of its creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine as they enter the seventh grade. Konkle and Erskine, now in their thirties, play themselves while their peers are portrayed by actual middle schoolers. The concept has the potential to be distracting, but it is convincing from the pilot episode and never detracts from the story.
Set in the year 2000, PEN15 aims to portray “middle school as it actually happened.” From the bad fashion to the music, every aspect of 2000s nostalgia is depicted with incredible accuracy. Anyone who actually attended middle school during the early aughts will be able to recall their own personal stories that are mirrored in each episode. The show tackles a number of topics, from female friendship, to divorce, and racism, and it does so with poise and honesty every step of the way.
In one episode, Maya and Anna are in a group project with some of the popular girls in their grade. The girls welcome Anna into their group, but treat Maya, the only person of color in the group, as a secondary figure. They go out of their way not to include her, and even end up encouraging Maya to perform a racist comedic bit for their project. This spurs Anna to go on a well meaning crusade at her school during which she storms the principal’s office declaring she has “been noticing racism in society and [is] here to report it.” It is a poignant moment in the series, and one that had me reflecting on my own time as a young teen growing up in a predominately white suburb. I related strongly to Anna in this episode. Growing up, it’s easy to get roped up in what the “cool” kids are doing, but at the end of the day you can’t be a follower. It’s more important to stand up for your friends and than it is to fit in. Anna’s learning moment of how to be a good ally is an important one regardless of your age. No matter how good your intentions may be, you need to listen to those you are trying to stand up for.
Another episode that has stuck with me since binging the show is the episode titled “Solo”, in which Anna and Maya perform at their middle school recital. Maya, who has been faxing letters back and forth with her dad while he’s on the road with his band, is desperate to impress her father. In one letter, she exaggerates the three note timpani part she has in her band’s piece and is overcome with the stress to perform well when he surprises her by returning home in time to attend her recital. It all culminates mid-performance when Maya absolutely loses it as she goes off-script and performs a literal show stopping timpani solo, completed by her vomiting onstage. It is a comedic moment made all the better when the audience later discovers Maya’s father, who Maya idolizes and believes to be a successful touring musician, is in a crappy cover band. What really struck a chord with me in this episode is the inherent need for validation we all feel. Maya doesn’t see her dad very often, and in turn idolizes him and craves his approval at all times; So she exaggerates her accomplishments while he’s away. Her dad does the same by embellishing his own stories from the road. It’s comforting to see the adult just as desperate for the approval and adoration of their child as the child is for that of their parents.
PEN15 is sure to produce infinite belly laughs as you recall your own cringe-worthy moments from middle school. Undeserved and unwavering confidence combined with extreme self-consciousness is a feeling almost unique to middle school that Konkle and Erskine exploit to achieve their goal of portraying the middle school experience with honesty. Their adolescence that once failed them has become an unrelenting success.