Co-creators (along with Sam Zvibleman) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as fictionalized versions of their younger selves as they embark on the misadventures of middle school in the year 2000. Erskine and Konkle are both actually 31 (though they make pretty convincing seventh graders thanks to subtly spot-on costumes, plus braces and retainers), but their classmates are played by appropriately-aged actors, which offers an initial punch of humor out the gate.
Of course, you don’t have to be an ’80s/’90s baby to enjoy the show, but that audience will no doubt appreciate the dedicated details that make this comedy almost unbearably relatable — which include pop culture nods that many millennial ladies can recall, like making up dances to Spice Girls songs and fighting over who gets to be Posh; procuring (and possibly even sharing, ew) a secret thong; the excruciating sound of dial-up internet interrupting an important phone conversation on your bedroom landline (Anna has the clear plastic phone with neon innards that we all wanted à la Clarissa Explains It All); or the stress and excitement of creating the perfect AIM screen name, chatting with boys and analyzing every response. I would guess the latter still persists nearly 20 years later thanks to texting and Tinder.
All the specific illustrations of Y2K life beg the question: Is PEN15 just a mad grab at nostalgia? Maybe. If that were the case, I’m an easy target: Anna and Maya are the exact age I was in 2000, and all the early-aughts references — from butterfly clips to girl group B*Witched — are thoroughly authentic. Hell, Maya’s dad is played by Richard Karn, better known as Al from Home Improvement, a crucial component of turn-of-the-century culture (I’m still holding out for JTT).
But it’s the serious side of this gut-busting comedy that cements my praise of it. PEN15 expertly tackles real coming-of-age issues many of us have dealt with; Anna navigates her parents’ rocky relationship while Maya struggles with her Asian-American identity. One episode is dedicated to masturbation, which has pretty much forever been designated as a boy’s topic in media or otherwise. When Maya discovers the joys of self-pleasure (then becomes a little too obsessed with it), she hides it out of shame. When she finally reveals her would-be transgressions, Anna admits that she also does it. “How gross can I feel if you do it, too?” Anna asks Maya, in a really sweet moment.
But just when it seems like their friendship is pure and perfect, the complexities of that too-close-for-comfort connection between BFFs kicks in, repelling them from one another when they need each other the most.
There’s a lot of raunchy humor and unapologetic rawness in PEN15 that’s usually reserved for dudes. When one of the girls gets her first period, her experience is captured without the typical sensationalism while still acknowledging the awkwardness and emotion of the milestone. And let’s face it, you didn’t have to be a straight guy to have your world rocked the first time you watched Wild Things. Oh, and the title looks like PENIS.
Every time the show ventures into over-the-top silliness — in one scene, a short-lived hunger strike to end racism results in Anna hallucinating Maya as a walking ham — the writing reels it back in with heartfelt emotion. Konkle and Erskine pull from real-life experiences to make their performances believable, and the teenage cast is seriously talented.
Millennial or not, viewers can come to PEN15 for the nostalgia of terrible haircuts, intricate note-passing and mix CDs and stay for the sweet story of two friends who — to paraphrase Britney Spears — are not girls, not yet women.