If you’ve ever been a middle school girl, Hulu’s “PEN15” is the show for you. It gives us an opportunity to relive the most cringe-worthy moments of our life from a third-party perspective. This allows us to find the hilarity and joy in puberty that never would have been possible in the thick of it.
When the popular boys pretended to like you, or when everyone found out you played with dolls and you had to eat lunch in the bathroom, or when you got catfished while catfishing a guy named FlyMiamiBro22 on AOL Instant Messenger, it felt like the end of the world. Thirty-somethings Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine are here, playing 13-year-old versions of themselves and reminding us that not only did we survive middle school, we can finally look back and laugh about it. If their own (stellar) performances aren’t enough to convince you that you’re back in junior high, they’ve surrounded themselves with actual middle-schoolers to play their classmates. Sounds strange, but they’re so convincing that it isn’t even that weird when they pine after 12-year-olds to touch their boobs.
It’s only recently that we can relive the most embarrassing and vulnerable times in our life from a nostalgic standpoint. Sure, we’ve always wanted to relive the glory days of youth — we had “The Wonder Years.” But only with releases like Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” and Nick Kroll’s “Big Mouth” have we gotten the opportunity to remember just how cringe-worthy and horrific puberty was with a smile on our face. This might be because our generation is more self-deprecating than those who came before us. It also might be that we’re constantly being told that the world is ending, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that middle school might have been the glory days after all. “PEN15” takes the best parts of “Eighth Grade” and “Big Mouth,” while integrating its own charm that keeps the show both hard to watch and impossible to look away from in all the best ways.
Not only does “PEN15” relive your adolescent trauma, it’s a love letter to the early-2000s. Starting off with “Crush” by Mandy Moore, and wrapping up with Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be,” it’s not just the music that will bring you straight back to the glory days. From the style (zig-zag hair parts, butterfly clips, Lisa Frank and gel pens? Yes, please,) to the technology — mainly consisting of see-through landline phones and AOL — to the excessive use of the word “like,” we haven’t seen an American period piece so accurately portrayed since “Mad Men.”
The BFF relationship between Anna and Maya grounds the show even as pandemonium reigns. Their affection for one another is a wholesome kind of love hard to find outside middle school walls. They support each other through bowl cuts, compulsive masturbation and racist popular girls. They aren’t perfect friends. They get on each other’s nerves. They fight, bicker and lie about how good Maya looks with her aforementioned bowl cut. Occasionally, they let each other believe stupid things, like, “Sometimes love means, um, ignoring someone for years.” But at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs, and there’s no fight that can’t be fixed with an interpretive dance or a night of playing with dolls. It’s easy to look back on middle school and only remember the mean girls and the constant, dull ache of mortification for your own existence. If you were lucky enough, though, there was an Anna or a Maya in your life who got you through.
For those suffering from middle school PTSD, “PEN15” is the exposure therapy you need. It is hilarious, humiliating and should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever been 13.