“PEN15,” the wacky brain child of creators Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman, is Hulu’s newest surprise hit comedy. The show stars Erskine and Konkle as their seventh grade selves, struggling to find themselves as social outcasts in the terrifying world of middle school.
Konkle and Erskine, both in their thirties, are beset with braces and flat chests (provided by binders) in order to play their pre-pubescent selves. While the concept is, at first, a bit jarring, Konkle and Erskine tower over their younger cast; the acting is so convincing that the audience often forgets who they’re watching. The age clash also provides a quirky, original take on the middle school comedy, which we’ve seen before through shows such as “Freaks and Geeks” and “Degrassi Junior High.”
Hulu is the perfect screening platform for “PEN15,” as it allows the film to use prolific swearing and discuss mature content that many broadcast shows about middle school prohibit. Puberty is a confusing time, and “PEN15” explores the nitty gritty details in an informative, humorous fashion, such as an episode on female masturbation.
Each episode deals with a relatable middle school topic, from peer pressure and the gross mechanics of a first kiss to racism and sexual harassment. Middle school is a time in which humans not only form their identities, but learn their morals and core values. “PEN15” highlights how racism and sexism can escalate from a young age unless prevented, ruling out the “boys will boys” concept.
Some viewers may be hesitant to watch this show, due to sexual content involving minors and Erskine and Konkle’s characters. However, the show never feels pedophilic as Erskine and Konkle fully transform into their seventh grade selves. And this show is about peak middle school awkwardness, so the farthest anyone goes is a slimy, heavily regrettable kiss filmed in closeup with a body double.
“PEN15” captures the backstabbing, gossipy nature of middle school, yet also breaks stereotypes of how teenagers act. Erskine and Konkle’s characters are smart, determined, hilarious individuals with creative personalities. But in the middle school world, it’s all about conformity and being cool. This form of behavior still exists today and the inclusion of Erskine and Konkle hints at the idea that people don’t necessarily grow any wiser when they get older.
Many raunchy middle and high school comedies involve male friendships with women as the love interests. “PEN15” puts female friendship at it’s center. No matter how many times Erskine and Konkle fight, their characters always resolve their issues as only best friends can do.