Most memories of grades 7-12 bring on one of those involuntary shudders, like the one you can’t prevent when someone accidentally scrapes a chalkboard. I try not to think about those years too much, because before the actual memories of things that happened come the waves of feeling that were too intense then and are too intense now. The feeling of liking a boy, asking him to dance, and being coldly laughed at. The feeling of a mouthful of braces framed by a faceful of zits. The highly specific embarrassments that I now know we all experienced to some degree but at the time seemed like proof that I was the absolute most embarrassing, least cool. Once in 6th grade I proudly wore an “outfit” that a friend of my mom’s had given me: a matching set of T-shirt and shorts with strawberries all over them. They were so cute and so soft, and they looked and felt so NEW. I was genuinely taken aback when someone sneered, “are you wearing pajamas?” Turns out, I was. In the age of spaghetti straps and tight jeans and Juicy Couture, I was wearing kids’ pajamas, and when I look at pictures of me wearing that outfit now, boy is it obvious which of these things is not like the others.
I didn’t watch a lot of TV in that era, thanks to parentally-imposed restrictions (good judgment, Mom and Dad), but every adolescent girl I saw in pop culture was cute if not downright sexy. Think late-nineties Hilary Duff, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, the freaking Olson twins. Compared to them and compared to the other girls in my grade, I was (in my own head) a misshapen, awkward singularity. I had a halo of frizz around my face that would not comply with hottest, meanest hair-straighteners. My breasts, such as they were, looked weird and wrong and not at all like what they were supposed to be. Other girls in my grade seemed to be pulling off the Hilary Duff thing, and privately, I constantly looked for ways to unlock their achievements. Now and then, a new accessory would come along (butterfly clips! platform shoes!) and bring me hope for my future as a normal kid. In retrospect, these are the hardest moments to look back on as an adult, because I remember walking into school in my platforms and my Abercrombie and Fitch (hand-me-downs from my cousin) on those days and feeling myself, but somehow it always turned out that I was actually wearing goddamn strawberry pajamas and had no idea.
Pen15’s cold open took me back like a time machine: two girls, one with braces and the other with a retainer (o, coveted retainer status!) talking on their cordless phones in their bedrooms, gearing up for their first day of seventh grade as Mandy Moore’s “Candy” played in the background. It was almost too real, too perfectly on point for me to tolerate. I so often find it genuinely upsetting to relive either the obliviousness of adolescence or the painful awareness that usually accompanied it; would I be able to relive the year 2000 without drowning in retroactive shame? If the show hadn’t immediately demonstrated its dexterity and attention to detail, I might have opted out instantly. But Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are absolute masters. How many 31-year-olds could play 12-year-olds convincingly and honestly without ever falling into outright parody? It’s clear that no one is meant to actually mistake them for middle-schoolers, especially since they play themselves alongside actual middle-school kids; they are reliving middle school just as I, the early-30s viewer, am reliving it, but they are also inhabiting it fully. We’re not just talking Y2K t-shirts and Ace Ventura impressions (although, kudos on both); we’re talking the exact material objects that I remember coveting as a seventh-grader, in the hopes that the things I owned would show people what I was worth. Gelly Roll pens, anyone? No knock-offs, please. Those zigzag headbands from Claire’s? They looked cute but after 20 minutes your head would be on fire. And the famous Trapper Keeper, of course. These items (especially the pens, for whatever reason) gave me a sense of security when nothing else did, and seeing them in Maya’s and Anna’s array of status symbols made me feel retroactively like I belonged to this era. It was a sense of belonging I realized I’d always sought and rarely found when I was that age. So I watched.
PEN15 pulls no punches when it comes to the embarrassment of being a middle school kid. Its kinship with Big Mouth seems obvious at first: for both shows, awkwardness is a primary color, and yet neither show paints with a broad brush. Big Mouth leans into its absurdity, which makes it feel inviting and inclusive even as it reminds us how horribly alienating the human body can feel to a kid. PEN15, I would argue, depicts the social reality of the tween years with more subtlety and more seriousness, which doesn’t prevent it from being wildly funny at times. And while Big Mouth brought me the absolute certainty that I never, ever wanted to relive the years of puberty, PEN15 reminded me of aspects of middle school that were, in all honesty, truly lovely. This is what a show that is willing to slow down and be serious without losing its sense of humor can do: use its characters’ fear and love, their excitement and dread, to elevate them into complex, fascinating humans who are capable of feeling big, huge emotions, for better and for worse.
Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, and the writing of Tina Fey gave us the expression “mean girls” in the early 00s, and we have so internalized it that we barely even think about it when we use it. Without a doubt, Mean Girls was a huge phenomenon for a reason: it speaks some real truth (and it holds up extremely well 15 years later). Middle-school and high-school girls have the ability to behave in horrifying ways to each other. PEN15 doesn’t hesitate to show us how, nor does it exempt its two main characters from the pettiness and cruelty that we so commonly associate with tween girls. But what you will remember of this show if you watch the whole season is the unbridled generosity and fierce love of their friendship. The pitch-perfect characters of Maya and Anna are products of excellent acting as well as perfect direction. They are often shot almost as if they were one person; so little space exists between the two that even when they’re facing each other and the camera is alternating between shots of their two faces, the other is always in the frame, too.
It’s this physical closeness that the show conveys so expertly that impressed me; this is a highly specific kind of friendship that only young girls, really, are allowed to have. As we grow, we develop boundaries, and a healthy reticence to smother even our close friends with unwanted physical contact. For Anna and Maya, there is no such thing as unwanted physical contact from one another. They go to the bathroom together, hold hands in the hallways, sit elbow-to-elbow in class, lounge in each other’s laps, and share a twin bed when one sleeps over at the other’s house. They love each other unconditionally, and they have a kind of boundless willingness to express that love. By no means does their affection preclude conflict between them; if anything, PEN15 is highly invested in emotionally honest explorations of how easy it is to feel betrayed by someone you trust as much as Maya and Anna trust each other. The almost total lack of boundaries between the two best friends make it practically inevitable that they will hurt each other, and indeed the show’s best episodes are the ones that zoom in on the moments when the two fail to understand each other’s experiences. “Posh” in particular has rightfully gotten a lot of attention for its thoughtful portrayal of kids’ casual racism and the unseen hurt it causes. More often than not, Maya and Anna fall out because of how much they love each other and because of how important their friendship is; their respective insecurities are immediately sparked when the fear of losing one another looms largest. One such conflict resolves during one of those universally loved/hated school dances (featuring K-Ci and JoJo! OF COURSE!), when Maya implores Anna, “don’t leave me.” and Anna whispers back, “don’t leave ME.” They are the best friends who never punish each other for emotional honesty, who never have to act cool or indifferent with each other. They always let each other back in.
At age 13, I rarely let my guard down fully with anyone, always wary that they would turn on me, humiliate me, or even just love me less than I loved them. At the beginning of 8th grade, though, I moved into a new house for the fourth time in five years, and this time, it turned out that my Anna (or Maya) lived just down the street. She complimented my butterfly clips one day, and that gave me my opening. The rest is history. We walked to school together every day, cried to each other when our moms were mean to us, lied thinly to our moms about going over to boys’ houses after school, helped each other invent plausible stories that our moms would never question (for the record, I’ve thought about these stories a great deal, and I am nearly certain that my mom did not believe a word of them, but rather made the decision to spare my dignity and just smile and nod rather than call me out). She went with me on my first date (the movie Here On Earth, in case you were wondering) because my parents wouldn’t have let me go alone with my new boyfriend. He sat on my right and she sat on my left, and when he got up the courage to suddenly and not-at-all-smoothly put his arm around my shoulders, she gave my hand a squeeze. She was always rooting for me, and sometimes 8th grade felt like her and me against the world. We wrote each other notes in class, some of which I still have (frequent use of waz ↑, classic salutation of the year 2000), and we absolutely shaved our legs for the first time together, sitting in her bathtub with our bathing suits on. She was the one to reassure me that my legs were HOT and that we should absolutely wear shorts to school together the next day. I trusted her, as I always did. Twenty years later, she lives hundreds of thousands of miles away from me. Hemispheres and time zones notwithstanding, she is still the person I ache to talk to when something really big is happening, because no emotion of mine has ever felt too big for her.
As Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan noted on The Watch earlier this week, period-based nostalgia is a fairly easy button to push for creators of new TV these days; look no further than the endless reboots of shows from the 90s we didn’t know we needed that are populating the streaming TV space right now. I would argue, however, that the emotional honesty of PEN15 is much rarer and harder to pull off. We need to both see Maya and Anna as adult actors playing the roles of their childhood selves (alongside actual children) and simultaneously forget that we’re watching anything but the reality of the 13-year-old experience, and it works because of their complete and utter commitmen. They never pull back from the bit, not even for an ironic wink, demonstrating among other things a high level of respect for their audience. They know we see what they’re doing, and they trust that if they tell the story well, we will commit to the concept right along with them. Without underemphasizing how fraught everything feels at the age of 13, how high the stakes always seem, PEN15 lets the audience in on the flip side of the mean-girl years, the possibility of a kind of closeness that friends rarely achieve outside of childhood.