Middle Schools Sucks, Even if You’re Grown-Up
Better Late Than Never: Pen15
Usually after I fall behind more than a season with a series, I tend to give up trying to catch up. There were exceptions (Breaking Bad) but it’s more often the rule: I only got halfway through the first season of Orange is the New Black and never tried to catch up.
Over the past couple of years though, I’ve been making a lot of progress with streaming comedies. Considering that they’re usually just half an hour and often have shorter seasons to begin with, I’ve made a lot of progress with some of the funniest series in the past few years. I discovered, just in time for its triumph at the Emmys at 2019, Fleabag. The Golden Globes put me on track with Ramy and I eagerly await the third season. And I got onboard with Dead to Me just in time for its marvelous second season.
Despite this, there are some series that I’m reluctant to get involved with despite the raves because the premise does sound too high-concept. One such series was Hulu’s Pen 15 the comedy series by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle about two seventh grade girls dealing with being well…two seventh grade girls. Konkle and Erskine created the series and play fictionalized versions of themselves even though both in their thirties. Sure, I said and passed on it after Season 1. Even after the series got quite a few Emmy nominations for its second season, I still put it at the bottom of the pile. Then I figured what the hell and looked at the first episode. I basically watched the entire first season in a month, which for me is the equivalent of binge-watching. I just started the second season, which seems even more hysterical — and cringe inducing — then the first.
For those of you who are not familiar with the format, the series takes place in 2000 when Erskine and Konkle were in seventh grade. They’re wearing braces and bad clothes and they mutter and mumble in the same way that we all did when we were twelve. It may really be my suspension of disbelief, but there have been more than a few moments when I genuinely forgot that Maya and Anna were adults. That is how well they inhabit the bodies of thirteen-year olds. (And honestly, considering how much viewers like me have gotten used to twenty-somethings playing teenagers, we don’t have to imagine that hard.) It actually helps matter that every other child that Maya and Anna interact with is a thirteen or fourteen year old.
The first season really picked up the mood on just terribly awkward is to be thirteen years old. You’re too old to be playing with dolls anymore, but you’re too young to really know what sex is. In a memorable episode, Maya almost by accident discovered what masturbation was, became obsessed with it and than horrified by it. Anna had to tell her that she’d been masturbating for quite a while. Later on Maya and Anna went to a teenager party which focused on watching a videotape of Wild Things. During that party, Anna had her first real kiss which was filmed and looked even more graphic than that movie’s most notorious scene. Maya and Anna spent much of the first season trying to dealing with being attracted to boys when most boys that age are — and I speak from the heart — truly not worth your time. There were also sadder undercurrents — throughout the first season it was clear that Anna’s parents were having major problems and in the penultimate episode, they told her they were getting divorced. This corresponded with a period (word definitely chosen for this use) where Maya and Anna had a sleepover and Maya genuinely thought her family loved Anna more.
This is all incredibly awkward and much of the humor is definitely of this type. A lot of Maya and Anna’s relationship with the boys in their junior high is based around their idea of what they think sex is and what locker room talk is. The first season ended at a dance where Maya and Anna ended up getting, well, felt up by a mutual crush. (That’s exaggerating; the kid used one hand on each of their breast for about ten seconds. In all candor, they got more out of it then he did.) The second season premiere (which is as far as I’ve reached to this point) took place two days later when Maya and Anna went to a pool party and looked at the guys there with the seriousness that college sophomores regard a bar — trying to be cool towards the prospects, ‘telling off’ the boys who got to them. Things got complicated when their ‘partner’ showed up, and then started acting like the action in the closet didn’t happen. Maya and Anna’s reaction was to go around the party and basically try to tell without telling what they thought had happened. They were overjoyed when it was acknowledged by the most casual of responses. And they are kind of overwhelmed the next day when they learn from a friend that everyone in the school thinks they’re ‘sluts’ — because of how they behaved at the dance and because the rumors of the closet have spread school-wide. The final scene is both hysterical and very far-sighted as Anna and Maya try to consider just how sexual they were that night — Maya thinks she was in two threesomes! — and when they realize just what’ll happen to the boy who initiated it. “Brandon’s a slut, too,” Maya says. Anna shakes her head. “He’s not a slut. He’s just a player.” The laugh is very hollow.
Pen15 is a very funny series because Erskine and Konkle — both as writers and performer — clearly know what its like to be a seventh grader. It’s not hard to remember that because, in a sense, we never leave seventh grade — the status symbols and awkward behavior we get at that age can be incredibly hard to shake. The fact that they’re dealing with it in the era of dial-up modems and fax machines doesn’t make it any less true now. It also helps that they clearly keep up the memory of what it was like to live in at the turn of the millennium — was it that long ago — with the songs and music cues perfectly timed from that error. This is an incredibly silly and juvenile series at times, but that’s what the lion’s share of comedy is when you’re thirteen — you haven’t outgrown Ace Ventura yet, as Maya clearly hasn’t. You hate your older siblings, you still have a certain kind of ridiculous idealism, you still want to please your parents all the time even when they don’t deserve it, and everybody’s in a clique that you openly disdain but secretly want to join. Erskine and Konkle made it out, and it’s a tribute to them that they so clearly miss parts of it.
I’m glad I finally got caught up on Pen15. Maybe I’ll be caught up him when the second half of Season 2 premieres later this month. Or maybe I’ll try and find another comedy series that I’m behind — Never Have I Ever sounds really fun.
My score: 4.75 stars.