Hulu’s PEN15 is a wistful love letter to your middle school best friend

When we meet Maya and Anna, the protagonists of the new Hulu series PEN15, they’re anticipating the best year of their lives. They’re about to start seventh grade! They’re talking to each other over the phone, describing the outfits (blue shirt!) they will wear. They fantasize about all the things they’ll accomplish. They’re ready for a year of adventures and brand new experiences.

Maya and Anna’s innocent optimism will make anyone who wasn’t a popular preteen want to reach through the screen, shake Maya and Anna, and tell them what seventh grade is really like.

A few minutes later, just partway through episode one, Maya is elected the UGIS (ugliest girl in school) and Anna is cringingly pursuing a boy with no interest in her. It becomes clear that seventh grade is a maelstrom of pubescent awkwardness, raging hormones, and the original blueprint for Dante’s circles of hell.

Created by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — Erskine and Konkle are adults and star as the seventh-grade semi-autobiographical versions of themselves — along with Sam Zvibleman, PEN15 zooms us back to the world of middle school circa 2000, before the dawn of Instagram-cataloged pre-prepubescence.

Seventh grade was still terrible back then, but social media (at least as we know it today) didn’t exist to make it worse. And maybe that allowed people to be a little more awkward and a little more naive.

PEN15 leans into that idea with a hysterical and disarming 10-episode first season that maps out Maya and Anna’s introduction to the trials and tribulations of seventh grade. The result is not so much a show for today’s teens, but rather a show for adults to wistfully look back at those years after having experienced every moment of awkwardness, heartbreak, anger, genuine friendship amidst a world of jelly pens, AOL chatrooms, retainers, landlines, and the Pen15 club.

PEN15 works because it doesn’t shy away from letting its kids be brats

PEN15’s central joke is that Erskine and Konkle, both 31, are playing seventh-grade versions of themselves alongside actual teenage actors. The conceit is hilariously jarring. The humor of grown women masquerading as preteens while the actual preteens around them play it straight results in the physical silliness of Erskine and Konkle crushing on unattainable boys or facing the wrath of mean girls.

That Erskine and Konkle, both grown women, are the butt of jokes and some middle school bullying while vowing to stick by each other through thick and thin makes their friendship even more endearing, and their situation even more comedic.

But Erskine and Konkle both go beyond that initial joke for something that takes the show from superficially hilarious to a more somber, more thoughtful, and less pleasant place.

That place is where Erskine’s Maya is allowed to be a bit of a jerk.

She whines (Erskine has perfected a pitch that is a cross between banshee and toddler) about how everything is unfair. She doesn’t appreciate what her mother, who is raising Maya and her brother Shuji by herself while their father tours the country as part of a middling cover band, is doing for her. And Maya’s conversations with Anna are sometimes only about whether she thinks Maya is pretty, what Maya should do next, which boys like Maya, and a series of constant reassurances from Anna that Maya is hot, smart, and, like, capable of anything.

Maya’s flashes of unpleasantness are some of the most honest parts and relatable parts of the show. An event like entering seventh grade can turn a kid’s world upside down, and it’s natural to be selfish, to not realize who you are taking for granted, and to have the desire to be told you’re doing just fine.

PEN15 takes those fears and uncertainty seriously, so seriously that it reflects something painfully real — anyone who’s lived through middle school can relate to it.

The occasional one-sidedness of Maya and Anna’s relationship benefits Anna, too. By devoting energy to Maya’s daily struggles, Anna doesn’t have to talk about her parents’ fraying relationship and can more easily distract herself from it. Unbeknown to Maya, her melodramas are as essential to Anna as Anna’s constant affirmations are to Maya.

The moments where their BFF relationship is at its ugliest — which the show confronts in moments like one where Maya shows her cluelessness about Anna’s home life — work because of how loving Anna and Maya’s relationship can be at its peak. Like when Anna and Maya promise that they’ll get through seventh grade together, or when they pick each other up after a rejection or being shunned by the mean girls.

PEN15 is for adults who can appreciate a show about the special horrors of childhood

One question I kept coming back to while watching PEN15: Who is the show is truly for? The best answer is: Anyone whose childhood consisted of pretending to be a hot 26-year-old with brown hair and blue eyes in an AOL chatroom.

“AIM,” the show’s seventh episode and my favorite of the season, sees Maya and Anna do just that. Maya and Anna sign up for AOL Instant Messenger, pick out screen names that are, what they believe to be, the perfect expressions of their personalities, and jump into the wild world of the internet on the back of a 28.8k modem.

Today’s kids and adults — this correspondent included — are hooked to a steady churn of Instagram stories, Snapchat messages, YouTube tutorials, and vlogs, from their friends, celebrities they admire, and sometimes complete strangers they follow for one reason or another. And I sort of found myself watching PEN15 and being wistful for the days of internet anonymity and the dangerous excitement of when I found myself connecting online with people (though looking back, I severely underestimated the creep factor) in a different city, state, or even country.

For anyone who can recall the sound of a dial-up modem, PEN15 has many details — the gel pens, the note-passing, that strange school-wide roleplay to raise awareness about drunk driving, an infatuation with the Spice Girls — that will feel uncannily familiar.

But while nostalgia drives the show, it also offers a couple of timeless lessons. In PEN15’s sixth episode, Maya, who is of Japanese and Caucasian descent, has to deal with subtle racism from the girls in her school. They make her be Scary Spice in a group project, and comment on the “darkness” of her skin. Maya herself hides the “weird” (Japanese) stuff in her house before her classmates come over to work on the project, but doesn’t exactly know why she’s doing so. There’s horror when two of the girls gawk and are grossed out by the food in Maya’s refrigerator.

It feels like the show is ramping up for a sitcom-like resolution about racism and prejudice, but the episode swerves, becoming a story about Anna and Maya’s relationship and their identity to one another. It’s only after they’re told by Maya’s brother that their classmates are racist that Anna and Maya begin to realize how different Maya’s Japanese heritage may be from that of many of their classmates, and how they’ve never really considered their own differences from one another because of their friendship.

There is no lightning bolt of justice and the mean girls aren’t punished, nor does Maya get a moment of revenge or comeuppance.

PEN15’s reluctance to turn its characters’ behavior into a teachable moment might be more honest than most shows want to admit: Kids don’t always learn lessons, some of those kids end up being adult jerks (they have to come from somewhere, right?), and kids who are bullied may never get the respect they deserve.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any hope. PEN15 acknowledges that middle school is indeed a special type of hell, but it also understands that if we were lucky, we had someone like Anna or Maya to get through it with.

PEN15 is available to stream on Hulu on February 8, 2019.