Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine may be the most convincing 31-year-olds playing 13-year-olds to ever grace our screens. The actors, who created the series with their friend Sam Zvibleman, transformed themselves into versions of their younger selves, braces and bowl cuts and all, in their new series PEN15. Through fictionalizing their childhood memories, Konkle and Erskine give exaggerated performances of pre-teen awkwardness and superficiality so authentically, you almost forget they’re both grown adults. Surrounded by a cast of actual children, Konkle and Erskine still absolutely nail the “no duh”s and naivety of young girls entering 7th grade.
The first season is set in 2000, the year Konkle and Erskine both actually turned thirteen. Every element of the series, from the music, to the set design, to the costumes, captures the aesthetics and essence of this very distinct era in a way that will satisfy any late-90s-early-2000s fanatic. Though the historical accuracy is impressive, the writing of these tween characters’ dialogue and story arcs is the most worthy of praise. The middle school-isms and not-quite-child-not-quite-teenager voice inflections are executed perfectly yet so effortlessly, it’s almost creepy. Dated details, like the girls using AIM and house phones to communicate, situate the show at the turn of the century and add entertainment value for a viewer in 2019.
However, the show explores so many parts of puberty and budding adolescence that are somewhat timeless: getting rejected by your crush, slow-dancing a full foot apart, drawing that infamous “S” in your notebook (see photo below for reference)**. At first glance, the name of the show could be misleading, but while “PEN15” is a visual gag of exactly the word you’re thinking, making this the series title is merely a reference to one of the countless immature “jokes” so many of us remember from our childhood.
This somewhat universal identification with certain pre-teen experiences points to what the show tackle best—the dichotomy between the innocence of childhood and the curiosity in experimenting with risqué and grown-up behaviour. The effortless amusement that kids find in just about anything is evident in how Anna and Maya act out dramatic storylines with their childhood toys together and get inexplicably excited to be temporary “sisters” while Anna stays at Maya’s house for a few nights, despite having sleepovers in almost every episode. However, the girls also mingle with new and unfamiliar things like thongs, beer, shaving, smoking, and second base. They both struggle at different times to adjust to and accept some of these changes as they realize that, despite the pact they made in the first episode, they can’t “do everything together.”
Despite the tension and resentment that growing up sometimes brings to their friendship, Anna and Maya are true best friends forever, rarely engaging in catty fights and almost always expressing genuine excitement and offering support for each other’s very important developments. In the rare moments that the show delves into fairly serious topics like racism and divorce, the girls are always ultimately there for each other, holding each other’s hand as they figure it out on the way.