How Emmy-nominated PEN15 won the critics over with one weird choice
If the two teens in PEN15 look a little odd, it’s because they’re actually 32-year-old women. But that’s not the oddest thing about this off-beat show.
PEN15, one of two first-time Emmy nominees for Outstanding Comedy Writing in 2019, is now streaming on Showmax. The cringe comedy is ranked #34 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Best TV Shows of 2019 So Far, with a 93% critics rating, and was recently renewed for a second season.
PEN15 follows 13-year-old besties Maya and Anna as they navigate – and try to survive – seventh grade and puberty. It’s an unfiltered, uncensored look at the headlong rush and bewildering horrors of puberty, capturing all the awkwardness, nervous excitement and vulnerability of starting middle school and becoming a teenager.
The Guardian calls it “a warmhearted yet terrifyingly well-observed series about being uncool at school… firmly in the current zeitgeist with its no-holds-barred examination of puberty’s private shames and discoveries – particularly the ones which, for girls, rarely make the screen.”
“Even in a TV age that’s given us puberty comedy gems like Big Mouth and Sex Education, I’ve never seen a TV show that nails the truly bizarre experience that is being a simultaneously over-confident and incredibly insecure teenage girl like PEN15 does,” says Variety.
Or as Entertainment Weekly put it, “Here’s an impossible masterpiece of teen TV that is authentically raw but also dreamily weird, a goof-off LOL comedy full of traumatic middle-school melancholy.”
Both the show’s nostalgia and a good deal of its cringe factor comes from the era – it’s set in 2000, which makes it super-real (and perhaps still too real) for Millennials. But the setting is far from the point – the characters and storylines are what matter – and we were all tweens once, which means, for better or worse, we can all relate. As Erskine puts it, “You never really leave seventh grade.”
PEN15 – named for the teen prank – slaloms across the line between fiction and reality. Comedians and co-creators Maya Erskine (Plus One) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood; the first episode of Ramy) play their 13-year-old selves, while Maya’s real-life mom, Matsuko Erskine, plays her character’s mother, Yuki. The rest of the cast are genuine teenagers.
Adults playing kids
The weird choice to have the adult actresses playing teens alongside real teens takes a little getting used to on first viewing, but it quickly becomes clear why the creators went this route. “We wanted to show middle school in an R-rated way, that showed the uncensored version of it, and you can’t really have 13-year-old kid actors do some of the things we wanted to show,” Erskine said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly (EW) – which is why they used body doubles for sexual scenes.
It was also a creative decision. “When you have adults playing those kids and going through those traumatic experiences, there’s a little more distance, to be able to laugh at it. If you saw an actual kid going through those things, it wouldn’t be funny,” says Erskine.
The general consensus among critics is that the casting choice paid off. Erskine and Konkle “absolutely nail the true flailing weirdness and insecurities of being a teen,” says Variety. “In getting to walk in their own 13-year-old shoes again, Erskine and Konkle tackle their parts with such commitment, attention to detail, and total lack of pretension that it’s impossible to imagine a version of PEN15 without their retrospective self-awareness. If you grew up as a teen girl, no matter when, so much of PEN15 will ring sharply and sometimes uncomfortably true.”
Best friends forever
Like its characters, PEN15 comes at you with an innocence and openness that is at once charming and uncomfortable in its honesty and intimacy, and that carries into the story’s relationships. Erskine and Konkle are best friends in real life, and the friendship between the characters could be the very best thing in the show.
The great triumph of Maya and Anna’s young existence is their unswerving loyalty to one another amidst the bewilderment of life pre-prefrontal cortex. The intensity of their friendship and love for one another brings an up-close-and-in-your-face tenderness to PEN15’s portrait of a less cynical time, before fake news and frenemies.
As Anna tells Maya, “You are my actual rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils.”
Binge Season 1 first on Showmax in South Africa.