'PEN15': TV Review

A little goes a long way.
2/8/2019

Incredible performances make Hulu's comedy — in which a pair of adult actresses play middle-schoolers — intriguing, but it feels too much like a sketch stretched into a series.

The new Hulu comedy PEN15 has two incredibly strong things going for it in co-stars and co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who devote an astonishing amount of effort and creativity to playing, as adults, the 7th graders they once were, surrounded in the process by real 13-year-olds.

To say their shared efforts make for a granular experience for viewers is probably underselling it. If two adult women have ever pulled off acting like 7th graders with this kind of painful, detail-specific accuracy, I haven't seen it.

If you're into that — and no doubt this will be highly and hilariously relatable for plenty of viewers, especially women, reliving that awkward and embarrassing phase that came just before the even more awkward and even more embarrassing high school phase — then PEN15 will be binged and rewarded for its unrelenting effort at realism.

But the series itself ends up becoming less inviting as a whole experience. In fact, PEN15 (a play on words referencing a grade-school prank where kids dying to be liked end up agreeing to be in a "club" that basically spells out the word "penis" somewhere on their body) is more skit than show. If not for the all-in efforts of Erskine (Insecure, Casual) and Konkle (Shameless, Rosewood), who play the eponymously named best friends Maya and Anna, the series would be instantly more forgettable.

Co-creator and director Sam Zvibleman does an excellent job bringing out the inner 13-year-olds of these comic actresses — and credit goes to both him and casting for finding actual young actors who do a credible and believable job alongside their adult co-stars — but other times PEN15 (Hulu says it's phonetically calling the show "pen-fifteen") seems like it comes from an under-funded, niche ad-supported cable channel. The fact that it often plays, as mentioned above, like an elongated skit probably doesn't help.

It might be that the thing that hurts PEN15 the most is the choice its creators made to set it in the 7th grade. While part of the charm is watching Erskine and Konkle dive headlong into being 13-year-olds, maybe the coming-of-age stories (of 7th and one would assume 8th grade if PEN15 is picked up for a second season) pale in comparison to those unfolding right now on something like Netflix's painfully funny Sex Education, set in high school.

Anyone who has real-life experience with the difference between the changes girls and boys undergo in 7th grade might argue that the ground is plenty fertile for comedy. And there are definite bright spots in PEN15 where the series is particularly spot-on at capturing the absurdly funny and painful balance between the all-out childishness of, say, being 12 and the suddenly more grown-up discoveries a year later. But the stakes are simply lower than those of high schoolers, where the rush of wanting to be cool and grown up clash with reality for some of the most awkward and memorable coming of age moments. There's just more variance in high school life than in the giggly middle school stuff PEN15 traffics in.

Again, both Erskine and Konkle are fearless in their portrayals — particularly Erskine, whose Maya is a little more prone to wild behavior than Anna, thus giving Erskine room to go so far over the top she comes round again, like in "Ojichan," the third episode, where Maya discovers masturbation and goes from 0 to 60 in her hilarious addiction; or "Community Service," episode five (of 10), where Maya's love of a stolen thong goes to hilarious extremes.

In its best moments, PEN15 is like a juvenile version of Broad City — creatively bold, out there and simple in its directness as it follows two best friends testing the bounds of friendship. The series should also get tons of credit for essentially taking the puberty nitty-gritty that American television loves to relegate to cartoons, like Netflix's Big Mouth, and giving those horrors a 3D realness.

But the downside is the repetitive sketch feel of the whole thing, which can wear thin over 30 minutes. As writers, Erskine, Konkle and Zvibleman are trying to build the PEN15 world beyond just Maya and Anna, to their families and those of their school mates. But right now the focus is so acutely on these grown women acting like 13-year-olds (and kind of awkward, naïve ones at that), that a little goes a long way — despite how committed the actresses are to the conceit.

Cast: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle
Created, written and executive produced by: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Sam Zvibleman
Directed by: Sam Zvibleman
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)