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'Pen15' Takes a Candid and Very Adult Comedic Look at Adolescence
February 8, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Hulu’s new series Pen15 calls to mind the old line about how comedy is when someone else slips on a banana peel and tragedy is when you slip on a banana peel.

Pen15, whose first 10 episodes become available Friday, revisits one of the most painful stretches of time that most people ever endure: junior high school.

There isn’t a demographic anywhere that can match the consistent, relentless cruelty of young teenagers – or the vulnerability of their victims, that is, other young teenagers.

Pen15 tries to put this young adult drama into a slightly less excruciating perspective by looking at it through the eyes of two women who survived: Maya Erskine (top) and Anna Konkle (top).

Now Erskine and Konkle, who created the show with Sam Zvibleman and based it on their memories, have taken a deep breath and revisited those memories. They play their teenage selves, though Erskine in real life is 31 and Konkle, 24.

The other actors are all the same age as the 13- and 14-year-olds they play, which sounds like it would create a disconnect or at least a distraction, but really doesn’t.

That’s to the credit of Erskine and Konkle, who channel their teenage selves in a way that most post-teenagers would just as soon forget.

Pen15, whose executive producers include Andy Samberg, differs from many other shows about the grisly landscape of middle school. While the mean girls, the jocks, the false confidence and all those hormones are everywhere, this show spends more time lingering on the smaller moments that collectively create the gauntlet of passage.

Maya, whose name on the show is Maya Ishii-Peters, and Anna, whose show name is Anna Kone, are besties who talk about everything, including the rumors about which of their female classmates is sexually precocious and the pain of their various crushes.

This being seventh grade and all, some older viewers may think the show, like its title, pushes the sexual needle forward a couple of years.

Pen15 does suggest 13 is the new 16, except that 13 has probably been the new 16 for a while. Grownups just prefer not to think about it.

On the purely social level, which is most of what Pen15 is about, the show offers several admirably diverse and multidimensional characters. That includes Maya’s brother Yuki (Mutsuko Erskine), who’s in eighth grade and tends to treat his kid sister dismissively until she’s in trouble or gets hurt, at which time he turns into a pretty good guy.

Another decent guy is Gabe (Dylan Gage), who refuses to join the mob that pounces on Maya, in particular, almost from the beginning.

The other boys and girls in their class are a good mix, with good and bad features and their own sets of issues. That includes Alex (Lincoln Jolly), on whom Anna has a serious crush.

Anna and Maya have ups and downs, in and outside of their friendship, but we never doubt their connection nor the certainty that when one of them brings up boys or underwear or bodily functions, the other is listening.

Pen15, wisely, is set in the year 2000, so it doesn’t have to factor omnipresent social media into the purgatory with which Anna and Maya already must contend. This forces more of the interaction to take place between actual talking people, not flashing smartphone screens, and while today’s 13-year-olds wouldn’t believe it, that’s surprisingly effective.

Pen15 doesn’t come up with much that previous high school and junior high school shows haven’t explored, which probably reflects the fact that way too many of the experiences in those years are universal.

Credit Konkle and Erskine with working hard to turn them into comedy. Some viewers may not be there yet. 

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