Ah, middle school. The smell of AXE body spray emanating from homeroom. Gossiping about who is dancing at stale rec center dances. Having lots of questions, and far fewer answers. If you remember anything about being 13, it's that it's hard — and not at all glamorous.
Pen15, which premieres Friday on Hulu in its entirety, is the rare show that captures that stage of life, balancing gross-out humor with the earnestness and curiosity of two girls in the chrysalis stage of womanhood. The girls' blossoming isn't trivialized, or rendered nostalgic, or made sexy. Instead, it's just depicted.
The show's refreshing (and near-miraculous) tone is thanks to the show's creators and stars, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who mined their own middle-school experiences for source material. The show's opening credits are a montage of real photos from the creators' peak awkward phases.
PEN15 is a reflection of their middle-school selves, and the creators' real friendship. However, Konkle and Erskine's friendship didn't begin in middle school. They met through mutual friends while as juniors studying experimental theater at NYU. For two women with experimental theater degrees, PEN15's premise is fittingly experimental. Though they're both 31 years old now, Konkle and Erskine actually play seventh-grade versions of themselves in the show.
Contrasted with the show's pre-teen actors, Erskine and Konkle seem like awkward giants — and that's part of the point. In middle school, Erskine explained to Vulture, “No one really feels like they fit in. There are so many highs and lows, your body is betraying you, you’re growing these boobs and getting pubic hair and having insane hormones. You’re a mini-adult but also a complete kid."
Konkle and Erskine incorporated specific experiences from their past into the show. In the third episode, for example, Maya masturbates for the first time, and then retreats from the world much like Charlotte of Sex and the City did after being gifted that vibrator. "I had no action in middle school, but I was masturbating like crazy," Erskine told Vulture. But Maya also grapples with a sense of shame. “As a young girl, you don’t see that it’s okay,” she continued.
A memorable step in Konkle's formation is depicted, too — her terrible first kiss. “My first kiss was mortifying,” Konkle told Vulture. “My expectations were Saved by the Bell. They were romantic. When it happened, it felt like an alien drilling my throat. I went home and burst out crying.”
Since making PEN15, the creators said they've been flooded with stories of other people's middle school experiences. Once they start talking about middle school, they can't stop.
“I feel like when you talk to people, and bring up seventh grade, for some reason that is a compartmentalized part of the brain that never goes away,” Erskine told The L.A. Times. “The memories — that time of intense highs and lows — still feel so fresh…and mortifying.”
This points to the near-universal emotions of these middle school years, even for people who had vastly different middle school environments. Erskine, for example, went to the prestigious school Crossroads in Los Angeles and a performing arts high school, and Konkle went to school in suburban Massachusetts. Still, their experiences can easily co-exist in the fictional PEN15 school.
Watching the 10 episodes of PEN15, you'll remember those middle school days, too — and probably be grateful that they're just memories now.