This is the time for comfort TV. The time for shunning glossy new offerings in favour of fifth viewings of Seinfeld, Law & Order: SVU, and The Office. When everything else is uncertain, there is a safety in the knowledge that Mariska Hargatay will get the bad guy at the end of every hour. These days, few new shows can successfully muscle their way in – but Pen15, which is currently airing on Sky Comedy, is one of them. It turns out, the only thing more familiar than watching your favourite reruns is watching your own character arc play out in front of you. For many of us, Pen15 is more than familiar; it’s cathartic.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, real-life best friends and co-creators of the show, play lightly fictionalised versions of their 13-year-old selves entering the seventh grade in the year 2000. While the leads are in their early thirties, their child co-stars play their real ages.
To bridge the 20-odd years between themselves and their middle-school roles, Erskine and Konkle bind their breasts, sport ugly-coloured bands on their braces, and adopt the fashion of early-Noughties girlhood: calf-grazing cargo pants, spaghetti straps and butterfly clips. But beyond orthodontic details or costume direction (all of which is painstakingly accurate, right down to the Baby G-Shock watch), it’s the duo’s performances which makes the shtick stick. Konkle and Erskine masterfully take on the physicality of being 13. Physical in their adoption of early-teen posture (hunched shoulders, eyes down), absolutely, but also physical in the tender petting that so often accompanies young female friendships: the hugging, the hand holding, and the wrestling.
Suspension of disbelief goes a long way and the gimmick goes largely unnoticed with Erskine and Konkle easily absorbed into their cohort of tweens. But even in moments when it doesn’t, when the reality of age difference rears its head at the sight of Anna and Maya awkwardly sitting in a class of otherwise pint-sized children, the sight gag works in the show’s favour – a dramatisation of the pair’s alienation.
Isolation has made our worlds small. The parameters of our existence seem to be no bigger than the distance between the bed and the fridge. We’ve looked to our TV shows to reflect this shrunken life: the four walls of Central Perk cafe, Frasier’s apartment, even the 16th precinct of the Special Victims Unit all afford some relief. But there are few spaces more insular than a childhood bedroom, which is why the universe of Pen15 is so soothing. Rainbow gel pens, camo-print clothing, sleepovers on school nights, and the distinct dial-up tone of a modem connecting. More than dispensing millennial nostalgia though, Pen15 pitch-perfectly portrays the absolute carnage of being a teenage girl, no matter the era.
In the Greek tragedy that is female adolescence, the girls are each other’s foils. Konkle plays Anna as a shy, waifish teen with a sunny demeanour, greasy hair and a brace-faced grin whose orderly persona opposes Maya’s chaotic energy. Erskine’s Maya is formidable and manic, the actor plays her teenage self somewhere between a wine-drunk mum and a bratty toddler prone to explosive outbursts.
The first of the 10 episodes begins the night before the first day of seventh grade. Maya sits in front of a mirror, holding a teen magazine in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Long story short, a haphazard attempt at Sarah Michelle Gellar-esque layers leads to a bowl cut that makes even the worst quarantine haircuts look flattering in comparison. In next morning’s carpool, Anna soothes her friend’s worries with positive affirmations: “It looks so good. I swear,” she says, gripping Maya’s hand in her lap.
Their friendship is immediately recognisable: intense, intimate, possessive, physical, a folie à deux of mutual support to the point of delusion. Pen15 recalls a time when being a best friend meant being half of a whole. In excitement, Anna and Maya press their foreheads together and squeal; in private, they roll around playing and grooming one another. As in any teenage friendship, “I’ll do it if you do it” becomes a refrain. Nothing is to be experienced without the other present: “I wanna be in the same room as you for our first finger,” Maya says in earnest to Anna as they gleefully plan for a year ahead of shared firsts. In one episode, they squeeze into a large T-shirt and stomp around, calling themselves “Mayanna”.
The show tackles the usual suspects of puberty: mean boys (the first episode sees Maya labelled UGIS – ugliest girl in school), popular girls, and training bras. But rather than giving us self-contained sketches tied up neatly at the end of every half hour, Pen15 feels no need to offer resolve, letting puberty stay as messy as it is in reality. The popular girls do not turn out to be nice, and their crushes do not turn out to be secretly in love with them.
What the show does do is depict the absurd theatricality of being a teenager. Everything is new when you are 13; I would look to my older sisters for cues on how to walk and talk, what to say and what to want. Anna and Maya are caught between wanting to play with Sylvanian Families and wanting to make out with door handles for kissing practice. The pair feel the pull of adulthood, but don’t know how to look or feel grown up. Everything becomes a performance when you don’t know how to behave – and that’s what Pen15 nails. The painful shades of performativity behind every exclamation, or the symbolism – an almost transformative sort of magic – imbued in inanimate objects like a hot pink thong or a happened-upon cigarette.
Popular culture is not lacking in representations of adolescent sexuality, but nine times out of 10, the on-screen depiction of the awkward and graphic reality of sexual awakening is boys’ territory. The sex-obsessed girl is a different, rarer beast. With her own set of complexities, she is Maya in episode four. After an especially passionate kiss enacted by the smooshing together of her two My Little Ponies, Maya becomes a lustful sub-verbal puddle of hormones. In its microscopic attention to all the gross details, Pen15 claims the kind of horny humour typically reserved for teen boys.
“Posh” stands out as an episode, with its unflinching dive into casual racism taking the form of Erskine’s own memory of dressing up as the Spice Girls with her white classmates. Despite Maya claiming the role of Posh Spice first, the clique tells her that she has to be Scary Spice because she’s different; she’s “tan” (Erskine is half-Japanese).
In an interview with Vulture, Erskine spoke about how re-enacting that Spice Girls scene had unexpectedly made her cry. I have similar memories – of laughing off casually racist comments, or agreeing to playing Mulan when really I wanted to be Belle, simply not understanding why I felt upset. Or whether I had any right to.
Even for a woman who was once a girl like them – I also acted out scenarios loosely based on The OC with my best friend – seeing these most cringey, intimate moments of adolescence on public display feels uncomfortable. But it’s also therapeutic.
From a safe distance of 10 years, I could watch and laugh as the insecurities and kill-me-now moments of my own puberty played out on screen. Along with belly laughs, the show offers a cathartic replay of the hell that is being a teenage girl, and a reminder of the comfort found in the insular cocoon of young friendship. Right now, as the novelty of Zoom wears off and we’re starting to see the cracks in digital connection, Pen15 takes us back to a time when human, physical contact was all we had.