I went into PEN15 thinking I knew what to expect. The ads for it seemed straightforward enough. It was a comedy following the misadventures of two middle-school girls, only the middle-school girls are played by two thirty-year old actresses. I figured it was Billy Madison if Adam Sandler was an actual fourth grader instead of a grown man going back to school. I assumed all the jokes would revolve around how out of place Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, playing characters of the same first name, felt among a cast of actual kids.
Turns out I had no idea what I was about to watch.
Of course, there are jokes that depend on the age difference between the two stars and their supporting cast. Sometimes those jokes are about the lack of an age difference between Maya and Anna and their parents. PEN15 relied on this inherent weirdness a bit more during its start than it does now. However, it did not take long for this show to find its real appeal, which is the earnestness, honesty, and positivity at the heart of every episode.
PEN15 has turned out to be one of the most emotionally honest shows you will ever watch. It is honest about kids, adults, and our shared experience in a way I never would have expected. And born from that honestly is the earnest positivity that makes me love watching every episode.
Maya and Anna navigate school, friendship, love, their parents, and the many pitfalls that come with adolescence without any of the cynicism or judgement you might expect from the premise. What mocking is done of this age group is done lovingly and with understanding. Maya and Anna are not wisecracking loners ripping on everyone around them. Their actual ages are not used to give them some kind of analytical upper edge on the absurdity of everything around them. They very much participate in that absurdity and drive it forward. They dive headfirst into the experience and faithfully recreate these incredibly awkward times.
And yes, they absolutely rely on their actual ages to make episodes funny in a very weird way. You cannot really escape the absurdity of the actual ages of the show’s stars. It’s just a strange concept that cannot help but make you laugh and also make you a bit uncomfortable at times, but PEN15 always manages that line between uncomfortable in a funny way and just plain uncomfortable. If anything, using two grown women allows the show to explore plotlines with its trademark honesty in ways it wouldn’t be able to if they cast anyone underage, or who even looks underage.
For example, a season 1 episode focuses on Maya discovering masturbation. Having an actual 13-year old would necessarily tame any such episode. Instead we get a hilarious and freshly blunt episode where Maya is all over herself in every setting. Under her blanket, in school, on pillows, she just cannot stop and is turned on by everything. It is incredibly uncomfortable, honest, and absolutely hilarious, and only made possible by the fact that a grown woman is playing an adolescent girl.
A season 2 episode ends on a fantastic scene where, after both Maya and Anna flee the school wrestling team after getting the nickname “Big Smelly Bush” from the boy wrestlers, they sit spread out in front of mirrors and talk to each other about their vaginas, trying to figure out if they are actually big, smelly, and bushy, and if there’s something wrong with them. You just never expect this from a show about middle-schoolers, despite this being the everyday reality of adolescence.
It is so funny, and so entirely unique. And really, I have to admit that so much of what feels weird and awkward about it comes down to how relatively unexplored these subjects are for any women on TV, and how entirely unique it is for teen girls. What show has ever let teen girls explore the idea of masturbation or what their vaginas should look like, let alone done so in such a graphic and blunt way?
And this is what I mean about PEN15’s complete honesty about its content. These girls are struggling with societal standards about women and their bodies, and doing so from a heartbreakingly young age, and this show wants you to feel bad about what they are going through, even if you’re laughing about it. There is a good chance you will walk away from every episode knowing they made a particularly good point about the bullshit teen girls have to go through.
Most of the time, PEN15 must find increasingly funny and potent ways to avoid the obvious barriers that come up with two thirty-year old stars and their adolescent co-stars. Kisses involve bad cuts to two obvious adults, or a mouth planted on a jaw. Season 2 gets around Maya and her “boyfriend” having their first kiss by turning it into her boyfriend, Gabe, struggling to realize he is gay.
Naturally, Maya doesn’t understand why Gabe won’t kiss her, which ends season 2 on a truly devastating final note where Maya feels “confirmed” that she is ugly, and no one likes her. It is exactly the kind of devastating physical insecurity that rules adolescence. PEN15 never shies away from these moments and explores them with a truth that is commonly softened up for the audience.
Periods, boys, sex, friendships, vicious gossip, divorce, basically everything that matters in adolescence is covered frankly, warts and all.
What makes this all the more impressive is how the child actors hold their own. They may understandably be censored when it comes to bodily issues, but they get their time to shine and always pull it off. They get to be honest, too. They get to shine in dramatic scenes and curse alongside Maya and Anna. A season 2 arc centers around a girl who forces herself into a three-way “best friendship” with Maya and Anna, all seemingly as part of an equal-part jealousy and desperation for friends. Gabe’s struggles with his sexuality get a season-long focus that promises to continue in season 3.
While everything Maya and Anna go through is enough on its own to make PEN15 great, it is these scenes with a talented cast of child actors that really pushes things over the top. Even if you are cringing and uncomfortable through half of it.
And really, what really makes it hit hard is when you realize just how adult these conflicts really are. In the end, children deal with the same emotional issues that adults do.
Throughout much of season 1, I found myself wondering just what it was about PEN15 that made it feel so great. Season 2 pretty much crystalized the answer to that question and improved upon everything I was considering from that first season. At the heart of the show, undoubtedly, is Maya and Anna’s friendship. It is a positive, supportive, but often fraught with potential pitfalls. Because, you know, they are teenagers.
Lots of minor things come up that put the girls at odds. Crushes, shared thongs, emotional priorities, secrets they don’t think the other should have kept, it all causes the two girls to have ugly moments threatening their friendship. At the end of the day, though, they love each other and care too much to let these disagreements stick. Some of their hostile moments come and go within seconds of each other. Others last multiple episodes and feel like genuine threats. They never last because they are simply too close.
The result is one of the best friendships I have ever seen on TV. One perfectly capturing the dangers to childhood friendships that come with growing up while also making clear just how much Maya and Anna love and need each other.
It is truly strange to see such an openly strange show be so perfectly accurate about adolescents and people in general. It’s baffling sometimes to see a ridiculous and hilarious scene like the muscle suit hallway walk be followed up by something devastating like the big smelly bush reveal. Or how Maya wiping her…self on the carpet to hide what she has been doing is also full of the shame girls are made to feel about masturbation. It is hilarious to see Maya and Anna trying to get witnesses to a closet incident with a boy and then devastating when gossip spreads and haunts them.
I love it. I have so many favorite shows these days but PEN15 quickly found a place near the top. I hope it gets the audience it deserves, because you will not find many shows that expertly balance confliction emotions from moment to moment like this one does. Give it a watch, I promise you won’t regret it.