If I May Suggest: ‘Pen15’ On Hulu
It’s a painfully funny comedy about two thirtysomething women playing themselves as gawky teenage girls
Hi, my name is John. I don’t want to tell you what to watch. I don’t know you. I’m just an average guy trying to make sense of the world who is not a computer program that scans vast databases for specific keywords and search queries. Like, I don’t respond to “What should I watch?” IDK. You should watch whatever you want on whatever streaming platform you want. The best I can do is tell you what I’m watching.
And I’ve been watching Pen15 on Hulu. It’s a show about two 13-year-old girls played by two 33-year-olds, writer/actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle who co-created the show with Sam Zvibleman. I was never a 13-year-old girl. I think, perhaps, I would be a better person if I had been a 13-year-old girl. I was born a boy. I’m sorry. That’s just the hand I was dealt.
I was a small, chubby boy with dark eyes. A goof who liked to brood. Imagine a Peanuts comic strip character created by Edgar Allan Poe. I was a goof, with zits, who had a strong sexual attraction to Erin Gray, an actress who starred in a live-action sci-fi TV show titled Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. I’d wake up terrified and sweaty from dreams where Erin Gray would wave at me from across rooms. I still have those dreams.
Pen15 is a well-made compassionate reminder that puberty is a catastrophe that is a little more catastrophic for girls. The half-hour comedy is about Maya and Anna, two teenage besties during the turn-of-the-century. The pair are hormonal mutants with mouths full of braces, hairstyles from the fashion apocalypse that was the year 2000, and hearts hot like summer asphalt.
The show successfully subverts the traditional American teen comedy, which is a popular kind of social amnesia. American teen comedies tell a lie to young people and adults that goes something like this: “these are the best years of your life.” LOL. They aren’t. Pen15 knows this, which is why the show tackles topics like race and sexuality — but these topics are handled gently but sharply.
Yes, Pen15 is also a cringe comedy, which is a genre of comedy that mines social awkwardness for nervous laughs. There are plenty of unbearable emotional scenes in Pen15 that I had to watch through my fingers while covering my face with my hands. It’s also screamingly hilarious. That adverb is not an exaggeration. When Maya Erskine does her adolescent self’s impression of Jim Carrey I literally scream at the TV with joy. It is one of the funniest bits I’ve seen in years.
The Season One episode about masturbation is also an absolute blood-curdling comedy classic.
I recently binge-watched Cobra Kai, the popular Netflix series that catches up with the lead characters in The Karate Kid, specifically Mr. Miyagi’s protege Daniel and his nemesis, golden boy Johnny. The Karate Kid is one of those ’80s movies that looks its age: It’s still sweet and sincere while also leaning into racial stereotypes of Asians as emotionally repressed martial artists with magical hands way too much. The movie is not so great, except when it is.
I will probably write a long essay about why Cobra Kai isn't just cheap nostalgia— it tries to connect the past with the present, the end of the last century, and the start of a new millennium. It doesn’t always succeed but when it does it reveals that cultures change but the challenges of adolescence don’t. The graceless transformations young humans undergo during those years are awful no matter the decade.
Cobra Kai tries to create three-dimensional female characters and succeeds, but these fully-realized girls and women are still on the sidelines, cheering on the personal growth of all the men and boys. I have spent my life watching movies and TV shows about my gender. I was never directly discouraged from watching shows about the other gender — the one with boobs — but there was an understanding that watching movies or TV shows for girls was not something boys did.
Maybe that’s why I think there are only two genders?
Better late than never. Pen15 is not about my experience. I was actually a fully-grown adult man in the year 2000. But the show speaks to me. It makes me question my own youth and the young women I grew up with. I had no idea their nightmare was just a little more nightmarish than mine.
The second and most current season of Pen15 covers important rites of teenage life, like pool parties and sleepovers. A frightening rich girl is introduced. A divorce unfolds like a horror movie. There are moments that hurt, and scenes that are unexpectedly beautiful. The last two episodes see our heroes join their school drama club, which hit home. You may not know this, but I was not a jock in high school. Pen15 understands that there are two types of theater kids: dictators and cult leaders. The dictators are drawn backstage and the cult leaders want to be stars.
Like Cobra Kai, Pen15 wants to tell a universal story about growing up in America but from the perspective of two girls. The boys — all played by perfectly cast teen actors — are sympathetic and uncomfortable in their skins. But these boys are not the main characters. That’s fine. I guess the truth was I wasn’t always the main character either. Pen15 is about two best friends obsessed with first kisses and witchcraft and each other. I don’t directly relate to it and that’s okay. Luckily, my imagination is flexible.
Pen15 is a good show. Should you stream it? I don’t know you. Maybe if you leave a comment we can change that but, for now, I don’t know what you should watch. All I know is that I’m a middle-aged dude who became emotionally involved in a TV series about teenage girls, and I cheered when they smiled and get dewy-eyed when they frowned. Every time. Normal stuff! Check it out.