In his commencement address to Emory University in 2005, Tom Brokaw said, “real life is not college; real life is not high school. Here is a secret that no one has told you: Real life is junior high. The world that you’re about to enter is filled with junior high adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds, and the false bravado of 14-year-olds. 40 years from now, I guarantee it: You will still make a silly mistake every day. You will have temper tantrums and you’re feelings will be hurt for some trivial sleight. You’ll say something dumb at the wrong time. And you will wonder at least once a week, ‘Will I ever grow up?’”
The truths laid bare in Hulu’s PEN15 will probably destroy you directly, especially if you were in junior high from anywhere in the 90s to early aughts. The hysterical, brutal specificity in which Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle set their story is exceptional because it captures the dramatic earnestness of being that age without simply satirizing it from an adult’s perspective. The trials and tribulations of early teen life are presented as emotionally raw as they were at the time. Though the series is ostensibly a comedy, and there are some moments of some traditional humor, PEN15 is not so much funny as felt, deeply, uncomfortably accessing memories of a time you thought you had moved on from. It’s bold and quite possibly brilliant.
In its second season (the first of two parts, the second of which will air in 2021 per Hulu), the show continues to explore school-age traumas like gossip, unrequited crushes, being desperate to fit in, trying out new curse words, being mean to your parents and immediately regretting it, and above all becoming self conscious of your own awkwardness. Though Maya and Anna occasionally still play with dolls and engage in incredible silliness, it’s more timid now than when they were in grade school. They’re aware, suddenly, that they might be “too old” for those things, and yet they are still too young to do anything more than dip a toe in the world of adults (drinking, smoking, ideas of sex). Erskine and Konkle capture this by being bold in their performances—one of the show’s greatest, strangest tricks is that the actresses are in their early 30s, yet somehow fit in seamlessly with their teenage co-stars. Thus, they can be as curious, vulgar, and vulnerable as teens really are without worrying about asking actual kids to portray that on screen. Their investigation into this fraught time comes out of love and understanding, their heightened portrayals of junior high life emotionally accurate.
The show can sometimes feel like it’s going too far, but that bluntness fits the tone of these characters’ bumbling attempts to grow up. PEN15 never shies away from difficult subject matter, though is never dark (Anna’s parents’ divorce continues to be realistically drawn out and messy this season). But the show also shines as an example of true friendship, where Maya and Anna’s relationship is full of bust-ups but never break-ups. Their primary desire is to always make sure their bestie is ok, yet they are imperfect at doing that of course. The girls are also incredibly annoying, accurately so, and some of the scenes with them whining and yelling at their parents were chilling in that I could hear myself doing the exact same at that time. That’s the thing about PEN15: it gets to a deep truth about this particular time in one’s life (perhaps most especially for millennial girls), full of nostalgia but also a certain pain.
More melancholic in its second season, PEN15 understands that junior high is the start of difficult, confusing, strange years of struggle to understand the world and one’s place in it. As Brokaw said, we’ll still be making mistakes, having temper tantrums, and being overly sensitive for the rest of our lives. As a teen you wonder if you’ll ever grow up, and PEN15 is here to say no … but at least you’re not alone.
The first seven episodes of PEN15 Season 2 premiere Friday, September 18th on Hulu.