I… don’t even know where to begin with this show? It’s truly like nothin I’ve ever seen before? I highly recommend it, but I also don’t think I’ll fully watch it again. PEN15 (a.k.a. penis!) is truly the middle school grafitti-like ’S’ everyone scribbled personified. Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, the show follows two middle school girls, Maya and Anna (played by Erskine and Konkle respectively), as they go through puberty right before our eyes in the year 2000. The Lisa Frank-ness of it all jumps right out, covered in rainbow sprinkles, gel pens, and bowl cuts. It’s an endearing and gross look at a different kind of teenager hood - one that literally includes Maya’s character getting her period for the first time and us, as the viewer, witnessing it.
The two girls go through so many childlike shenanigans together that really mark the 2000s. AOL was huge and dial-up was a real thing. What I love the most about PEN15 is the curation of the time period, as many of my favorite shows have done this as well, and it’s such a dose of nostalgia for a time that I’m glad is coming back to the pop culture forefront. Like where would we be in fashion if we weren’t forced to survive through the dread of low-rise bootcut jeans and rolling backpacks? There’s an episode in which our girls make AOL accounts for the first time and choose truly heinous screen names; they join anonymous chat rooms and hit up random strangers (as one does). And because this is a show primarily about puberty for the most part, it wouldn’t be complete without the terrible make-out parties these kids go to as they discover sexual feelings for the first time. It also tackles the nuances of childhood friendships so well, like in an episode when Maya’s parents dote on Anna more than Maya, and Maya gets super jealous. This is #relatable content and I am here for it.
Something super unique about this are Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, two fully grown adult women, playing essentially their middle school selves, alongside a sea of actually middle-school aged young actors. It’s incredibly jarring and is something to get used to. And if you can’t get used to it (as I did), PEN15 is going to be hard to swallow (no pun intended). But I did really love seeing Maya Erskine, a Japanese American actress, play this Japanese American character. Her race is ultimately not at the forefront of this show about these teenagers, and I really appreciated that. As someone who pretty much grew up in a similar home life as Maya Ishii-Peters, I totally related to her racial identity simply being a thing in the background as the more important part of her life (i.e. surviving middle school) took center stage. That being said, there are definite key moments and episodes in the show that deal with her racial identity and how she is Othered from her BFF4LIFE Anna, who is white, and the rest of the school. It’s so key to a story as comedy-dense and frankly, gross, as this.
While I do recommend the show, PEN15 is 1000% in the family of comedy shows that are weird and gross about teenager-hood, and not afraid to be rated-R about it. If Lizzie Mcguire’s iconic moment was Lizzie declaring wanting a bra, PEN15’s iconic moment is probably Maya discovering masturbation for the first time. Think Big Mouth meets Broad City infused into a middle school setting and led by an Asian American girl. In many ways, this is a golden combination. But in other ways, I could definitely understand if this show is Not For You (in many ways, it was also not for me). Namely, I don’t know how much I vibe with the idea of two adult actors pretending to have kissing scenes with minor actors even if it’s acting and there’s no actual kissing at all involved. But I’ll leave that to you to decide. What I am looking forward to however, is seeing how this show will tackle getting older for the girls, as eventually they will have to enter high school and we all know that’s a whole different can of worms.