In an era where film executives are increasingly banking on millennial nostalgia and reboots, I was deeply skeptical of Pen15, Hulu’s new original series about middle school in the year 2000. I assumed its entire conceit would be wrapped up in its anachronisms; that the late ‘90s and early 2000s cultural signposts—dial-up cable modem, AIM, the hideous cargo pants and skirts stocked by Delia’s, and otherwise unmemorable singles like “Candy” by Mandy Moore—would be both the set-up and punchline in a show about the relatable awkwardness of middle school.
But while Pen15 has all of those things, it is, above all else, a bawdy, irreverent show about female friendship and the confusing but exhilarating transition from childhood to adulthood. It takes the raunchy, gross observations about budding sexuality of Big Mouth and grounds them in real life a la Freaks and Geeks, except the stars are two teen girls. Adult comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, convincing alter-egos of their 13-year-old selves, among a cast of actual young teenagers. Yes, the butterfly clips, gel pen-written notes, and Limited Too locker accessories are nostalgic, but more importantly, they are authentic, in service to a friendship that portrays what it was like to be an American teenage girl in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Maya is brash and outspoken while Anna leans towards earnest, but both are extremely weird, unafraid to break out in dance at any moment. Like most teens, they are neither popular nor particularly unpopular (though in the first episode, boys in her grade label Maya an “UGIS,” the Ugliest Girl In School), and none of the kids in their school look like the cliquey cast of a CW teen drama. Also like most teenagers, both Anna and Maya are preoccupied with the idea of attracting a crush, but unlike most common depictions of adolescence (and specifically the depiction of teen girls), their goal in finding boyfriends is almost incidental. They don’t necessarily want to kiss boys or even be around them; they want to want these things because it might boost their popularity, become another milestone in their own friendship, or feel validating against insecurities about their looks.
In reality, Anna and Maya seem their happiest when they are playing with their dolls or creating elaborate dances at home, but the world around them is changing (as are their bodies), and so much of their dynamic is about them trying to stay afloat amid new social pressures and situations that they don’t fully understand. This introduces them to often-bizarre situations that test their friendship, including stealing a popular girl’s hot pink thong and wearing it on alternating days; Maya lying to Anna about her after-school plans so she can masturbate furiously at home; and watching Wild Things with a group of awkward, horny boys in their grade. Their friendship is realistic; while watching, I thought of the sister-like friends I had in elementary school, when bonds were formed and maintained simply by living nearby, and grew almost co-dependently, without the rigid boundaries of adults.
Erskine is half-Japanese and Konkle is white, which allows the show to explore how teens develop thoughts on race and racism. In my favorite episode of the season, “Posh,” Maya and Anna decide to spoof a Spice Girls video for a school project. But instinctively and with total consensus, the girls they invite—all of whom are white—ask Maya to be the servant. When Maya asks why, one girl explains: “Because you’re, like, different from us.” Desperate to be included and in on the joke, Maya complies and even exaggerates her performance as “Maya the Guido” for the benefit of her white peers. She doesn’t realize the performance is racist, or that she’s internalized that racism, until her brother and his friends point it out—and even then, Maya can barely articulate what racism is or how it affects her. What I love most about the episode, though, is how Anna reacts. She storms into the principal’s office and says, “Um, hi, I’ve been noticing some racism in society, and I’d like to report it.” When the school fails to take her complaints seriously, Anna takes matters into her own hands, and, in an effort to shine a light on racism, unwittingly does something even more racist to Maya. The episode is both light and heavy, demonstrating how race undoubtedly separates the two as individuals, and a slow realization among friends that close kinship doesn’t always translate to shared understanding.
Anna and Maya are delightful—weird, fun, and raunchy—as they stand on the precipice of their awkward teenage years. Through the closeness of Anna and Maya’s relationship, Pen15 gives viewers a way to look back to their own pubescence with a softer, fonder gaze than memory might allow. The show is so good, in fact, that there’s a part of me that wants to transport to 2000 so I can befriend Anna and Maya. But they don’t need more friends—they’re happy just to have each other.