‘PEN15’ fearlessly recounts one of life’s most terrifying experiences: middle school

A perfect balance between comedy and truth is struck through the breath of fresh air series that is “Pen15.”

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This articles contains spoilers for “PEN15.”

There are very few phases in life that have the potential to be as traumatizing as puberty’s gel pen-ridden starting line called middle school. The awkward school dances, cringe-worthy outfits and pressure to be more grown up than your adolescent peers just comes with the territory of being a bonafide tween.

Despite how universal this early educational and social experience is, so many shows and movies fail to accurately capture the true experience of being in middle school. “PEN15,” however, a show created by female comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle and set in the year 2000, depicts middle school like the bad haircut we all had in our youth: kind of hilarious and totally embarrassing.

The show’s premise is a bold choice by itself. Erskine and Konkle, both 31 years old, play seventh-grade, 13-year-old, BFF versions of themselves named Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters. This unique dimension, however, is taken a step further when we find out that they are amongst a cast of actual middle school-aged kids.

This idea is initially absurd without question, but if you can get past the shock of seeing two 31-year-olds in braces and training bras having crushes on teen boys, you will find the honesty of this show to be both refreshing and uncomfortably accurate. Erskine’s and Konkle’s performance over this 10-episode series effectively transports the audience back in time a few decades to the days of locker-lined hallways, first kisses and landline phones.

The on-screen relationship between Erskine and Konkle expertly captures the dynamic that two inseparable best friends,determined to experience everything from their first slow dance to their first beer together, would have. Using a classic middle school catchphrase, “I’ll do it if you do it,” we watch Maya and Anna enter angsty social situations many of us remember all too well.

The attention to detail and care that went into the conception of the show is apparent in everything from how the inside of lockers are decorated to how bizarre and polarized boy-girl parties are. With the right amount of satire coupled with an appropriate level of sincerity, Erskine and Konkle truthfully embody how life-altering a cruel nickname at school can feel or the sense of being grown-up that comes with wearing thick eyeliner for the first time.

When compared to similar comedy shows set during the age of pubescence, “PEN15” diverges from the male-dominated formula depicted far too many times before. The previous archetype of coming-of-age storylines that portray the young female characters as either adolescent sex objects or mockable know-it-alls is nowhere to be found in the blueprint of this show.

With everything from female masturbation to drinking, smoking and finding that space between overconfidence and insecurity, we see Maya and Anna maneuver the treacherous landscape of a middle schoolers’ everyday life. Happiness can morph into anxiety within one class period, a sleepover can turn into a fight and the careful passing of notes in class can be the beginning of a relationship. For the first time we see the portrayal of young women on screen as being admittedly awkward yet undiminished. Rather than letting a bowl cut or acne eat into their overall sense of personhood, Maya and Anna harness their comical and complex sense of self and channel it into character development.

Through the characters of Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, we get to relive the joys and perils of middle school without the trauma of actually being 13 again. It is so easy to forget the world-ending feelings and jittery excitement that comes with being a young person experiencing so many firsts all at once. Erskine and Konkle took one of life’s most trying experiences — being a teenager — and gave it the honesty it needed in order to be entertaining. “PEN15” is an alarming and hilarious show about 31-year-olds playing middle schoolers, but it also reminds us that, in many ways, growing up does not mean growing old.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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