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‘PEN15’ Goes for Cringe over Binge

Hulu’s Series Straddles Adolescent Divide of Naiveté and Worldly Disruption

Photo: Courtesy Thirty-somethings Maya Erskine (left) and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves in the Hulu comedy series 'PEN15'.

The title of Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s Hulu series, PEN15, straddles the adolescent divide between childlike naiveté and worldly disruption. It refers to a classic middle-school prank in which one friend asks another to join a pen pal club. If the friend agrees, he or she becomes the supposed 15th member and that membership is notarized by writing “Pen 15” on his or her hand.

Oddly, though, when written, the space between the word and the number is squeezed a little tight, and the five bears the unmistakable curvature of an “S.” The prank encapsulates a major theme of Konkle’s and Erskine’s show, where guileless friendship and the desire to “belong” are troubled by the emergent preoccupations of adulthood, foremost of which is the sexualization of their changing anatomy.

But, to be clear, the main characters’ bodies aren’t exactly changing. Konkle and Erskine, both in their thirties, only pretend to be 13-year-old versions of themselves, Anna and Maya. They don braces and dress to the middle-school fashion standards of the time, circa 2000. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is true to their age:  teenagers playing teenagers.

While this discrepancy might seem stark on paper, onscreen the contrivance takes about half an episode to get used to. Konkle’s and Erskine’s awkward fit into tween clothing reads less as costuming and more as the gangly limbo of pubescent proportions, where features struggle to keep up with each other in an unsightly dash toward adulthood. The ladies’ petite sizes and tragically unhip hairstyles help  —  Erskine sports a stunningly androgynous bowl cut —  but it’s their full-on physical commitment to the roles that quickly dispels any lingering disbelief in the show’s premise.

The kinesthetic seesaw between giddiness and fretfulness, so familiar to adolescent girlhood, pulses through every scene. If emotions were decibels, the emotional range of PEN15 would go from giggle fits to shrieks. Anna and Maya are always just one small social mishap away from being totally stoked on life to totally dying of embarrassment, as each episode places them on the precipice of entering yet another terra incognita of puberty.

For instance, an entire episode is devoted to the earth-shattering realization that one of their classmates has begun wearing a thong. Anna and Maya then proceed to steal the thong and take turns wearing it for a day. Through their experimentation, they come to know the power of an invisible undergarment and how it can transform the terms of ownership over one’s body. Almost every episode comes back to this one vital instruction: how the changing of one’s body in relationship to the world requires a new level of self-regard, as scary and as exhilarating of a prospect as that may be.

While Konkle’s and Erskine’s true age and a few opportunely placed body doubles allow the show to address explicit content critically and from a safe distance, PEN15 does not shy from the awkwardness of nascent sexuality. It revels in the cringe factor, exploiting the audience’s own trauma-tinged memories of adolescence with all the misfires and wrong turns any young navigator of the sexual landscape is sure to encounter.

But there’s catharsis in the cringe. The laughter comes from a place of tenderness, not ridicule. The loving, supportive friendship between Anna and Maya in the show creates a kind of safe space to revisit the difficulties of adolescence, where audiences can receive the nurturing forgiveness and acceptance they may or may not have been given during their own trying experiences.

So much of television today, particularly of the streaming variety, relies on the engine of relentless narrative momentum, enticing viewers into hours’ worth of binging delirium to keep pace with the story. Konkle and Erskine have made the audacious choice to take a step backward instead, not to propel us forward. The episodic nature of PEN15 means it can be picked up almost anywhere. Just as with memory, it’s the familiarity of the situation that delivers the immediacy of the emotion. PEN15 is as much the audience’s story as it is the creators’.

PEN15 streams on Hulu.

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