‘PEN15′ Review: A Big-Hearted Ode to Awkwardness

To a certain subset of the millennial generation—those of us who can still distinctly remember the screech of a dial-up internet but also don’t quite recall never having an iPhone—Hulu’s PEN15 is going to be, as we used to say on AIM, 2Real4U. Created by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle with The Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone onboard as executive producers, the 10-episode series stars Erskine and Konkle playing seventh-grade versions of themselves surrounded by real grade-school actors. But that’s never a gimmick. It never devolves into, “Isn’t it weird these adult women are talking to kids?” Instead, PEN15 takes its leads’ genuinely huge-hearted performances and beautifully, achingly brings to life the moments from your youth that still keep you up at 3 A.M—good and bad.

Image via Hulu

PEN15 is a slight show, because the dramas that upend your life at twelve-years-old tend to be slight. It’s the year 2000, B*Witched is a thing, and Maya and Anna head into seventh grade determined, as we all still are, to have the Best Year Ever. They experience first loves and heartbreak. Bullying and triumph. The realization that our dead relatives are definitely watching us masturbate from Heaven. The whole circle of life.

There’s no way PEN15 connects with everyone on the same level. I don’t expect anyone over the age of 40 or under the age of 15 will quite feel the familiar sting of burning your crush a CD or getting yelled at to sign off the internet because your mom needs the phone. But for the people who do very explicitly get it? PEN15 is a trip, man. The attention to detail in the writing, directing, and even set design is so spectacular you’ll have Wheatus stuck in your head for days. Moment after moment floored me in their sheer spot-on specificity; there’s a joke about a group of boys trying to glimpse a second of porn through the scrambled pay-per-view channel that downright ruined my afternoon. (I apologize for nothing.) Even then, part of the TV-reviewing game is recognizing when a piece of art isn’t geared directly at you. If PEN15 resonated so clearly on a pure emotional level with me, I can’t imagine being a woman who came of age in the time of gel pens and boy bands.

This is all led as un-gracefully as possible by two incredible, brace-faced performances Erskine and Konkle, all flailing dance moves and never quite knowing where to put their hands. Again, the joke of the show is never just the fact that Erskine and Konkle are 31 and 24, respectively. Instead, the two actresses use their character’s awkwardness like a comedic weapon. Separately, they’re two distinct characters; Maya is a manic youngest-child ball of flailing dance moves, while Anna is prone to trail a sentence off with an out of place “like…”. But the real strength in both performances comes in how genuine their friendship feels in a very childlike, earnest way. When Maya and Anna say things like “Can we never not do this?” on a Friday night playing with dolls, it’s heartbreaking because we know the characters mean it and we also know it’s a wish that can’t come true.

Image via Hulu

That’s the other thing. Yes, the title of the show looks like the word penis, but it digs deeper in its subject matter than you’d expect. Some of the problems are sillier than others—Where do you put your hands during a slow dance? Impossible to say—but PEN15 doesn’t shy away from the way our bodies change in seventh grade, the loneliness that comes from feeling like The Ugliest Girl In School, or the unfair hierarchy that deems some Cool and other Uncool for life. The series sixth episode, “Posh”, a stand-out half-our, sees Maya and Anna basically discovering that racism exists. The way they handle it is still funny, but also deeply real. (Anna, at the principal’s office: “I’ve been noticing some racism in society and I’d like to report it.”)

Really, PEN15 is less a cohesive show than it is flipping through an old yearbook on a warm afternoon. It is snapshots brought to life, memories revisited. Anyone looking for a plot-heavy binge won’t find it here, and I also expect some who see The Lonely Island’s name attached expecting Popstar-like madcap comedy to be a bit disappointed, too. (It’s still there in its most surreal form, but subtle and muted.) But there’s something irresistible about PEN15, similar to what I felt while watching Bo Burnham‘s Eighth Grade. It’s not a show that you’ll immediately take to social media to discuss with countless other people. But in its own, completely different way, it will make you feel less alone.

Rating: ★★★★

PEN15 debuts on Hulu on Friday, February 8.