Hulu’s PEN15 is a horrific, historically accurate dissection of Bush-era teen girlhood. The cringe comedy depicts gendered, generational rites of passage—such as one’s first time drinking a beer, grinding to Nelly at a dance, or watching Wild Things—through the misadventures of Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle). Friends since age 6, these 13-year-olds stare down the unique pubescent horrors of middle school together: periods and ill-advised crushes, emergent theater kid drama, shifting parent-child relationships.
The twist is that the two lead actresses, who are also the show’s co-creators, are actually in their early 30s and playing younger versions of themselves, while all the other characters, including their parents and classmates, are played by actors their age.1Konkle and Erskine are gifted physical comics, so skilled at embodying the precise awkwardness of the early teens that I’m sometimes jarred to remember that they’re my age. The needle drops and outfits and bedroom decor are all pitch-perfect, but it’s their body language that really sells the premise. Erskine nails the precise way younger siblings throw their entire bodies into stretching out single-syllable words; Konkle somehow manages to forget everything she’s ever learned about controlling her long limbs.
Sometimes the effect of their adulthood is uncanny-valley, but often it’s more tender than that. The presence of these grown women conveys a seriousness that the experiences of girls are rarely granted on screen, but it also lends Anna and Maya’s—and, by extension, all the middle school characters’—grim, mortifying moments some lightness by underlining that everything they’re going through is temporary. (Also, come on, I cry during every episode of Chopped Junior; I would never be able to handle watching child actresses embody these humiliations.) None of this is as intense as it seemed at the time, but that doesn’t make it entirely frivolous.
More jarring, I’d argue, than Erskine and Konkle playing 13-year-olds is the fact that the two did not actually grow up together. They became friends during their junior year of college, and that context adds another layer of tenderness to PEN15: yes, the series is a horrorshow gauntlet of age- and generation-specific embarrassment and discomfort, but it’s also a sweet fantasy about what it would have been like to have grown up alongside your best friend—what it would have been like to weather the most uncomfortable time in your life with someone you love who loves you back.
That specific fantasy didn’t resonate with me as strongly during the show’s first season, which I adored at the time but didn’t feel capital-s Seen by (outside of the episode “Anna Ishii-Peters,” a personal attack on me, a child of divorce whose best friend’s mother regularly introduces her to people as “my well-adjusted oldest child.”) But while watching the first seven episodes of season two2this fall, the thought of being in the company of my closest friends during an otherwise horrible time absolutely wrecked me.
I’ve had the same best friends for the majority of my three decades of life. There are four of us, and there have been four of us since middle school; before that, starting in first grade, there were three of us; and before that, way back in preschool, there were two of us. My memory does not stretch back to a time before I knew at least one of them. When I share this with people, they either find it adorable or a sign that I’m psychologically stunted in the way that people who marry their freshman year homecoming dates are.
Both takes are correct, but they’re also both wrong. Staying close to the people you grew up with is more and less heartwarming, more and less fucked up than people imagine. As someone who doesn’t have to wonder what it’s like to weather your awkward phase with a partner in crime, PEN15’s merging of middle school and adulthood best friendship is factually, psychologically, and emotionally accurate. As Anna and Maya do, we’ve each drifted away on occasion, pulled out of orbit briefly by a new friend or interest, but we always returned to where we felt most at home. Growing up together was humiliating and funny and sad, but it was so much less humiliating and sad—and so much funnier—than it would have been if we’d each had to fend for ourselves.
Sometimes our sense of solidarity might have served us better if we’d reined it in a bit. We validated and echoed each other’s mortifying aesthetic choices: tattoo chokers, butterfly clips, velour tracksuits3, low-cut bootleg jeans, Sun In—all those characteristically 2000s eyesores, all that time wasted flat-ironing our hair. There are multiple VHS tapes documenting what we imagined at the time to be a Saturday Night Live-caliber sketch show, filmed on my family’s massive camcorder. Every day now, I feel anywhere from seven to 12 unique moments of gratitude that we did not have TikTok at our disposal.
When one of us wanted to ask a junior boy to our senior prom, we all strategized a plan of attack involving a script for a voicemail to be left while he was at a Friday afternoon lacrosse practice. But we excluded his name from the script, and none of us thought to ask if he shared his LG flip phone with his twin brother. He did, and the twin assumed the message was for him and accepted the invitation—an error we didn’t untangle until we arrived at school on Monday morning. (The friend in question is now happily married to a man she started dating after she accidentally sent him a text intended for me, re: what she should do about her emergent crush on him.) Going to prom with the wrong twin isn’t what your parents fear when they worry your friends are a bad influence, but still, the point stands: we did a lot of things that were far too stupid for one developing mind to come up with all on its own.
The negative consequences of being a member of this brain trust were more than balanced out by the benefits. Our collective delusional confidence was built on a baseline level of faith in ourselves that I doubt any of us would have ever developed alone; it also provided a space for goofiness and immaturity in a world that pushes girls to grow up at a breakneck pace. When one of our home lives grew unstable, they got absorbed into someone else’s without having to ask, and because we spent so much time together, no one else noticed anything was amiss. None of our trajectories into adulthood were linear or simple, but we navigated them knowing that we had each other to fall back on, even though we’ve lived scattered apart for the last 12 years.
PEN15 always captured my own distinct subspecies of early-‘00s teenage awkwardness with horrifying and delightful accuracy, but I don’t know if it got sadder in 2020 or if I did. Throughout the first season, the conflicts between Maya and Anna—all of them at least a little bit absurd, most of them resolved in the span of a single episode—manifest the friends’ shared fear that they might end up maturing at different paces, a fear that usually hinges on the biological threat of puberty. Season two dwells more deeply on why the prospect of drifting apart is so terrifying, and articulates in sharper detail the stakes of what Anna and Maya would lose if their friendship were to dissolve. Without each other, they’d be viscerally lonely.
Part of that more incisive tone emerges from season two’s stronger focus upon external, beyond-the-individual-body threats to Maya and Anna’s bond. Not only do the friends risk physically maturing at different paces, but as they gain independence and become less sheltered, they also start to experience more new things and encounter more new people more often; any of these novelties could spin two people off onto divergent paths. Often, they end up doubling down on their connection. As Anna’s parents’ marriage grows rockier, Maya becomes a stronger ally, moving beyond her past jealousy over how well Anna fits into the Ishii-Peters house to invent a new, socially inappropriate splinter sect of Wicca to help Anna feel a sense of power amidst all her familial dysfunction.
But the moments in which it seems like Maya and Anna’s bond is fraying are brutal. The most notable immovable object that collides with the unstoppable force of Anna and Maya’s friendship is Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), a villain more menacing than any stereotypical teen media mean girl could ever hope to be. New in school and eager for companionship, Maura leverages fabulism, wealth, and feigned maturity to ingratiate herself as the third member of this best friendship. Initially, the new girl seems like she might just be an annoying tryhard. But when Anna’s mom Kathy (Melora Walters) meets her and instantly, openly loathes her, it’s a horror movie violin score-caliber sign that this girl will wreak havoc—a position that Maya’s mom Yuki (Mutsuko Erskine, Maya’s real-life mother) comes to share.
The moms are right to be suspicious of this new friend, as moms generally are in this regard. (I can’t be the only person who’s grown up to recognize that all my classmates whom my mom hated—and there were more than a few—definitely deserved it.) Once Maura endears herself to Maya and Anna, she immediately starts driving a wedge between them, manipulating Anna’s insecurities to force her into deference and ostracizing Maya with blatant racism, desperate to claw her way into being one person’s one best friend. Maura fails; it’s clear she will from the moment Kathy kicks her out of her minivan within seconds of meeting her—but I still held my breath during every moment where it seemed like she might succeed.
The tension of whether Anna and Maya’s friendship will last is also intensified by season two expanding its scope to shade in other characters’ inner lives—specifically, their loneliness—more fully. The flip side of the girls’ increasing desire to assert their maturity is Kathy and Yuki’s struggle to encourage their daughters’ independence while protecting them from painful missteps, a messy dynamic depicted to devastating effect during a joint clothes shopping trip. Their classmates, too, flounder at balancing their own needs and interests against restrictive middle school social norms—most of all Gabe (Dylan Gage), Maya’s first boyfriend, a closeted gay boy/angel I would go to war to protect. You even have to assume that the dreaded Maura isn’t entirely evil but rather navigating the challenge of being a young person among other young people in a maladaptive way. This careful attention to others’ isolation underlines what Anna and Maya have to lose if they lose one another, reinforcing how lucky they are to have a true companion in a world that most people—whether they’re awkward teenagers or grown adults—wade through largely on their own.
But maybe that sad undercurrent has been churning since episode one; maybe I just noticed it now because I miss my friends all the fucking time in this, the loneliest year of my and everybody else’s life. It’s great, mostly, to have friendships that endure. I’m a better person because of my friends; I’m also never a more appalling person than when I’m with them. I can’t project a cool, composed image for those who have both witnessed every stage of my orthodontic journey and held my hair while I threw up pantydroppers in the bathroom of a subleased off-campus apartment. When you’re around people who have repeatedly seen you at your worst and you at theirs, you’re liberated. You can say whatever pops into your head. You can indulge your most bizarre habits and maladaptive patterns without ever having to justify why you’re like this—they were there; they remember how you turned out this way. You can laugh about traumatic memories without anyone worrying that you might be a sociopath.
It’s awful, though, to be your worst self without their company. We’re better off than so many people, but we’ve all regressed this year: our sleep schedules and nutritional intakes are all over the place, our ability to cope with stress deteriorates further every day. I have worse breakouts than I ever did during puberty and bought my first velour tracksuit in over a decade.4The only way we’re more mature now than we were as teenagers is that we drink a lot more. Virtual contact makes us feel less alone in our spiraling, but it’s not the same as the physical—and during it, we hypothesize about what it would have been like if this had happened when we were younger. We dissect the consequences of effectively losing a year of school, list all the ways our respective families would have been disrupted, consider all the milestones we might have missed.
Yet we always settle into the idea that this would be so much easier if we were all in one place again, if we were gaming the remote schooling system as a quarantine pod holed up in one of the houses that one of our parents sold years ago—an idea that’s reassuring but obviously fraught. All the alternate versions of this experience would be bad in their own special way, just like, as PEN15 makes clear, middle school sucks tremendously no matter how much you love the people you’re stuck in it with. Anna and Maya aren’t freed from the humiliations of being teenage girls; they just have somebody to share them with—even though that shared experience sometimes spawns humiliations of its own. Still, it’s hard to resist the pull of the what if, hard to feel guilty about the small indulgence of imagining a rearrangement of past and present that makes it all a little less bad, a little less lonely.
The exception to this is, obviously, during kissing scenes and other scenes with mature content, in which adult body doubles stand in for the child characters.
The remaining seven episodes will be released at some point in 2021.
Juicy Couture knockoffs; what do you think I am, a Habsburg?
Still not real Juicy Couture, of course, although that might change if that $2,000 stimulus check hits my bank account.