Television

Come of Age in the New Millennium with Teen Comedy Pen15

Is it already time to feel nostalgia over growing up less than 20 years ago? Maybe.

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'Pen15'
'Pen15,' Hulu

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.

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  1. Garvin, you don’t have to watch this, you can complain to the Red Cross about this gross violation of the Geneva Convention.

    1. and I do mean gross.

        1. I didn’t see it because *I’m* not imprisoned in a space satellite and forced to watch cheesy movies.

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  2. Huh, this makes me wonder, what was the Millennial Breakfast Club… or St. Elmo’s Fire?

    1. Or is there even an equivalent? The way mass media works now I wonder if there are parallel cultural events for younger people. Of course, I have no idea. Maybe the kids still do all watch the same shit.

      Damn, now I sound like as much of an old fart as Rufus.

      1. >>>Maybe the kids still do all watch the same shit.

        dude my fall-league baseball is 18+ and a bunch of us old guys were quoting Major League and Bull Durham and the kids were looking at us like “huh?” so I asked around and *none* of them had seen Major League or Bull Durham … baseball players wtf

        1. Should have pulled out The Bad News Bears.

          1. Even “A league of their own” was pretty good.

        2. Now that’s a damn shame.

      2. That’s a really good point. I can speak to that a little on the musical front. The internet has so changed the music industry and sidelined gatekeepers, that seminal albums and super groups are no longer a thing.

      3. I am an older millennial, and the whole “everybody saw it” thing still existed for my age group… But I think once you get a few years younger, and definitely with the Gen Z folks, there has been a MASSIVE weakening of this kind of thing.

        Even my generation was a lot weaker than people who grew up in the 60s with literally 3 broadcast networks basically owning all TV. Nowadays people self sort into their cliques more I think. So all the INSERT CLIQUE HERE people might know a certain show or album or whatever, but there’s probably little that EVERYBODY knows anymore.

    2. Donnie Darko

      1. I’m kidding of course, the equivalent is probably some 10 hour YouTube unboxing video I’ve never heard of

    3. I think most millennial nostalgia consists of videos of themselves staring at a phone.

      1. đŸ˜€

      2. The oldest millennials were born in the freaking 80’s y’all.

        American Pie, Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You all cane out right around the time I graduated high school.

        The YouTube watchers are the generation after the younger millennials.

        1. “10 Things I hate about you” didn’t feel at all genuine. It was a polished and focused film.

        2. God… Damn… It. I’ve seen all those movies. I hate being an older millennial. They should have stuck with calling the mid 70s through around 1990 Gen Y, and THEN started the stupid millennial generation. We’re a completely different type of person than those born in the 90s as far as the way we grew up.

    4. I can’t really think of a good ‘teen’ version that wasn’t incredibly stupid; Van Wilder, American Pie, etc…

      As for adolescents, Sandlot was great. Otherwise, Fight Club and American Beauty were pretty big noteworthy films for me in my teen years.

      The event of Columbine had a huge affect on our generation. Bowling for Columbine had a pretty big affect on me as a teenager too. While I really dislike Michael Moore, I’ll never forget the interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone in that documentary.

      We also had 9/11 and all of the media and emotions attached to that. The patriot act, the creation of the DHS and the Iraq and Afghan wars.

      I honestly can’t remember some honest, non-cliche, “coming of age” type early teen film for my generation.

    5. But to answer the initial question… Maybe like American Pie or something? LOL

      That was a classic for my age group, and is all teenager growing up-ey and stuff. Kinda fits the bill!

  3. John Hughes is the bar.

  4. So it’s My So-Called Life, only newer?

  5. There’s simply no male equivalent to spending a Friday night applying industrial-strength eyeshadow, then squealing approval (“So much sluttier!”) at the results.

    Tony, I’ll let you handle this one.

  6. Gen X needs a television series called Fifty Something.

  7. Obama ate a dog said it best: hard pass.

  8. Aardvark-dick?! Guess I was lucky that when I came of age being uncut was so rare, most girls didn’t notice it with me

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  11. There’s something very creepy about having 31-year-olds playing 13-year-olds.

    1. Because you’re not sure if you should want to bang them or not?

      Obviously the answer is it’s totes cool!

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      2. Your post is why.

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