Pen15. Available now on Hulu.
"Oh my God," gushes Maya to her BFF Anna, "seventh grade is going to be so amazing…like, the best year of our lives." Less than 16 hours later she's tearfully denouncing her first big middle-school crush as an "aardvark-dick" and adding with an inhuman spite that reduces him, too, to tears: "That's probably why your dad died."
So it goes in Pen15, a brutally hilarious chronicle of the triumphs and tragedies of 13-year-old life at the turn of the 21st century: First beer. First kiss. First parentally interrupted session of self-abuse.
That is, nothing you haven't seen before, with a huge exception: It's all from a girl's point of view. Anna and Maya learn to swear, make out, huff computer-cleaning spray and survive (barely) bad haircuts from an ineffably female perspective. There's simply no male equivalent to spending a Friday night applying industrial-strength eyeshadow, then squealing approval ("So much sluttier!") at the results.
Pen15's pitch-perfect portrayal of the giddy, agonizing and glorious onset of female adolescence is the result of uber-auteurism: Executive producers Maya Erskine (Man Seeking Woman) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood) not only created the show and wrote most of it, they star in it, playing pubescent versions of themselves.
Remarkably, though both are 31 and required some major Hollywood chest-flattening magic to make it work, Erskine and Konkle somehow become the most authentically adolescent members of an otherwise-teenage cast.
Quailing and quivering, raging and rampaging, all of it often in a single scene, they confront transgressive parents ("Mom, what are you doing? The rule at school is never get out of the car") and conduct subtitled conversations conducted entirely in expressive glances. They doubtfully (but with tingles!) ease into makeout parties that don't get much beyond the Maginot Line of bra clasps. Their epic romances flame to life, then die to embers, all in the stretch of a single match class.
Pen15 marks the fourth or fifth generational cycle of the Hollywood fascination with teenage nostalgia that began in 1973 with American Graffiti, and like all the rest makes the most of its hey-remember-when moments. Land lines! AOL Instant Messenger! Sylvania dolls! Can it really be true that we once lived in a world without selfies?
But it's the eternal internal world of adolesence that's mostly the concern of Pen15, and that's not always a good fit for nostalgia. Erskine and Konkle do not skip past the mindless cruelty of teenagers, and it's possible that for all its rip-roaring daffiness, Pen15 is at its best when it's most lacerating.
When Anna and Maya are bullied into dropping their regular Friday night sessions of staging soap operas with dolls, or Anna is pranked by boys who pretend to like her but have actually put up a sign in the restroom designating her with the uncoveted UGIS (Ugliest Girl In School) Award, their pain is palpable. But so, ultimately, is their resilience and the power of their friendship. "You are my rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils," Anna tells Maya at the end of one awful day. Kind of mawkish. Kind of beautiful. Kind of true.