When you first stumble into the pubescent pressure cooker that is Hulu’s brand-new series Pen15, about two seventh graders played by adults (co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle), it’s difficult to immediately fall for the comedy. The main conceit of the show is watching Erskine and Konkle grapple with the growing pains of adolescence as tweens surrounded, bullied, and romantically pursued by actual middle schoolers. Despite Pen15’s just-shy-of 30-minute episodes, the first few installments come off like Saturday Night Live sketches (it just so happens to be executive produced by modern SNL great Andy Samberg).
Then, the much-lauded third installment of the show, “Ojichan,” arrives. It’s an episode whose title technically translates to “Grandpa,” but has much more to do with the budding sexuality of a tweenage girl, the immense horniness that comes with it… and the shame. By the felicity of the TV gods, Pen15 debuted on the same day as Netflix’s Big Mouth: My Furry Valentine, a Valentine's Day special that continues the streaming giant’s lovably profane saga of middle schoolers in the throes of puberty. These are the kinds of animated kids who come complete with their own sexed-obsessed hormone monsters (voiced by Maya Rudolph and co-creator Nick Kroll).
Together, Pen15 and Big Mouth point towards the exact kind of TV that confused middle schoolers everywhere need to see, precisely because it doesn’t actually star any real tweens.
There’s a single conversation in the season 1 finale of Big Mouth, “The Pornscape,” that reveals just how risky its premise is, as Vanity Fair also reminds us. To close out the comedy's freshman run, leads Andrew (John Mulaney) and Nick (Kroll) talk to Maury The Hormone Monster (Kroll, again) about the possibility of making something beautiful out of the cringiest era of their lives. “What? Like a show about a bunch of kids masturbating?” Andrew asks, aghast. Nick questions whether that kind of series would simply qualify as “child pornography.” Maury, like viewers who have watched 10 episodes of Big Mouth before getting to this tough question, is horrified.
“Holy shit. I hope not,” he yells, adding you could probably get away with that kind of show if it were animated. “Right?” Cue the knowing look towards the camera.
Maury, and his creator-voice Nick Kroll, is right. While Big Mouth has a full airport runway of extra boundary-pushing creative leeway thanks to its Netflix home, the comedy could never feature actual tweens in such graphic sexual situations. There is one episode where we meet Jessi's (Jessi Klein) vulva. For very obvious reasons it would be, as Nick says, child porn, no matter the outlet. However, Big Mouth instead features ridiculous-looking animated youths — Nick’s titular big mouth is half the size of his gigantic head — with the voices of famous comedians. And those comedy A-listers are consistently treating their characters with a nostalgic level of care, rather than experiencing the crisis of puberty in real time.
When Nick starts crying over his “tender nipples” in Furry Valentine, you’re not terrified the individual voicing him had to run out of the production booth to cry over his own rapidly changing, swollen body. So, Big Mouth can inspect the very relatable emotions around questioning your new body hair, near-constant sexual urges (sometimes for very talkative pillows of either gender), and masturbation without sending everyone involved to federal prison.
Masturbation, an act most people try before the age of 15, is also the first subject that suggests Pen15 could be great. The previously mentioned “Ojichan” begins with 13-year-old Maya (Erskine) playing an extremely childlike game of My Little Pony before she makes two of her toys kiss. Soon, there’s a pounding. The camera pans down to Maya’s wide open legs, where her crotch is wildly throbbing. Like, someone had to CGI this surrealist visual. From behind Maya’s Care Bear-shirted back, we watch the adult-as-tween get herself off for what seems to be the first time. The scene ends with a lengthy glance at Maya’s extremely sticky fingers. While this scene is a revolutionary admission of what girls everywhere are doing behind closed doors, it would be a crime if it featured an actual 13-year-old.
From that point on, Maya can’t stop masturbating. She tries to do it at school and tricks her BFF Anna (Konkle) into protecting the bathroom door from intruders. Later, Maya lies to Anna so she can go home and finish her self-love session. At home, Maya closes her bedroom door and hides in her closet for extra layer of masturbation protection from a mom (Erskine's real-life mother Mutsuko Erskine) who doesn’t care about boundaries. “I’m taking a nap!” she screams to ensure Mrs. Ishii-Peters doesn’t barge in.
If that was where “Ojichan” ended, it would stand as an important lesson for young women about the normalcy of their growing sex drive. After all, while Maya and Anna’s guy friends freely describe their genitalia and masturbatory habits in the school cafeteria, both girls reflexively groan, “Ew.” Even though Pen15's heroines are harboring the same natural urges, they know that kind of disgusted response to sexuality is what’s socially expected of them. That is probably how many middle school girls feel about their own sexual habits.
The possibility of shedding light on that universal shame is what elevates Pen15 from a painfully drawn-out sketch to great TV. Towards the end of “Ojichan,” Maya reveals her new masturbation hobby to Anna. Maya is clearly horrified by her own secretly normal behavior. Then, Anna admits, she too puts her hands between her legs “to feel good.” In just a few seconds, Maya has gone from hating herself to feeling intense relief and kinship. She even does a hand motion to see if the friends share a masturbation style (“not exactly”). When Maya asks Anna if she feels gross about masturbating, we get one of the most meaningful lines of the entire series. She responds, “How can I feel gross if you do it, too?”
In 10 words, Anna encapsulates what makes her show, and Big Mouth along with it, so very special: It’s impossible to be gross when everyone secretly is.