It’s the year 2000 and best friends Maya and Anna have just started middle school, full of optimism for this new chapter of their lives. We follow them as they navigate their way through the social jungle of sleepovers, pool parties, school plays and first kisses. And since it’s the turn of the millennium, we also have plenty of rainbow gel pens, ultra-shiny lip gloss and AOL Instant Messenger in the mix. But PEN15 has an even more defining feature than its early noughties setting. The major trick up its sleeve is that young Maya and Anna are played by PEN15’s creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who are both in their early 30s.
This creative decision might be a little distracting at first, with Erksine and Konkle physically standing out amongst child actors, but what initially feels like an amusing gimmick quickly becomes much more than that. It does an excellent job of highlighting the intensity of life at 13 years old – when hormones are raging, bodies are changing and every emotion hits ten times harder than it should – and how ridiculous it can all seem in hindsight. If someone insults you, it feels like the end of the world. If you’re mildly attracted to someone, it feels like they’re the love of your life. There’s something funny but also deeply tragic about the sight of grown women pining after tween boys who are at best indifferent towards them, at worst openly cruel. Anna has a longstanding crush on popular Alex who barely knows that she exists, yet she describes their non-existent relationship as “on and off all the time”, clinging onto the idea that “sometimes love means ignoring someone for years”.
The fact that the two leads are played by 30-something women also ensures that, even though it’s a show about 13 year-olds, PEN15 can be first and foremost an adult comedy. For instance, an episode where Maya discovers masturbation, and can then think about nothing else all day at school, will strike a chord with plenty of viewers but probably wouldn’t have been feasible with a child actor. Similarly, one of season 1’s funniest episodes sees the two girls steal a bright pink thong from a more popular classmate and find that wearing it gives them almost mystical levels of self-confidence.
Erskine and Konkle seem to become more immersed in their roles as the show goes on, and at times, especially in the most emotional moments, it’s easy to forget that they’re adults playing children. Anna’s parents choose to get divorced, in a nuanced and frequently heartbreaking storyline, and we get to see how both girls deal with this seismic event – from dabbling with ‘witchcraft’ as a form of escapism, to falling out because Maya believes that her parents are being nicer to Anna than they are to her. The 13-year-old perspective allows the show to tackle big topics in an original way, such as in the episode ‘Posh’, where Japanese-American Maya is told by other girls that she can’t play Posh Spice in a school project and has to be Scary Spice as the only member of the group who isn’t white. Season 2 also puts a welcome spotlight on classmate Gabe (Dylan Gage), who is implied to be gay but dates girls simply because it’s the done thing, and demonstrates the reality that bullying doesn’t always come from the places you’d expect when the girls make a new friend in spoilt, manipulative Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), who might just be one of the year’s best TV villains.
PEN15 really nails that awkward, frustrating period of transition from child to teenager, when you’re perpetually fluctuating between being desperate for and terrified of attention. And while the show features plenty of late 90s/early 2000s references, you certainly don’t need to be a millennial for Maya and Anna’s coming-of-age story to resonate.
Contributed by Sophie Davies
PEN15 is now available to stream on NOWTV and Sky Boxsets