When Hulu’s cringe comedy PEN15 came out in 2019, I wasn’t really that interested. In reality, I probably didn’t hear about it until 2020, when my then-housemate Ruby recommended it to me. Expecting a silly gross-out teen comedy (as I felt the title suggested), I gave it a miss. However, for whatever reason, it stayed in my mind and recently, I found myself having a transformative binge session with this show.
For context, PEN15 is an Emmy award-winning, two-season series starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They play versions of their 13-year-old selves while the rest of their classmates are played by actual teenagers. Set in early noughties LA, their story is shaped by crucial elements of that era, such as the Spice Girls, Swarovski crystals and a Nokia 3310.
My teens started a few years earlier than Maya and Anna’s. I turned thirteen in 1994, a year that was all about OJ Simpson, Netscape Navigator and Whigfield’s Saturday Night – but essentially not that different. All of PEN15’s tech and pop culture references were still achingly familiar to me. For example, in “Runaway” (Season 2, Episode 14), where Maya has a meltdown and decides to leave home because her older brother is given a cellphone feels highly relatable.
In fact, I found a lot about Maya’s character easy to connect with. While Anna is the comparatively emotionally mature, ‘nice girl’ in this duo, Maya is a certified freak. Selfish, attention-seeking and prone to seismic tantrums, there is a lot about Maya that could make her seem unlikeable. Yet the brilliance of both PEN15’s writing and Erskine’s acting is that we see so much of the character’s vulnerability.
The strange older + younger actors element is the show’s surprising strength. Having actors in their thirties play teenagers allows for an exploration of some of the rawest moments of puberty – on a level that would perhaps be questionably exploitative for a young performer. And the thing is, Erskine really goes for it as Maya. Like really. Her embodiment of a 13-year-old’s emotional state is so incredible that I forgot that Erskine is more than twice the character’s age for most of the show.
Her performance is also enhanced by the fact that her actual mother plays the same role on-screen in PEN15. It’s easy to imagine that every time Maya’s character flies into a hormone-fueled rage, the mother-daughter pair draws on their shared experience. These outbursts are matched with some heart-meltingly tender moments, too. By the time you get to “Yuki” (Season 2, Episode 11), you realise the enormous amount of love Erskine has for her amazing mother.
The strange thing about watching Maya’s journey is that after a few episodes, I began feeling this powerful sense of forgiveness for my younger self. Something that perhaps I’ve struggled to achieve in the past. Seeing this total weirdo next-level obsessing over a pink thong, masturbating to pictures of sand dunes and pretending to be a scarecrow when a boy tries to kiss her felt surprisingly reassuring. I began to realise that the strange lump of a human I was in my early teens was somehow ok.
Some key moments from PEN15 that felt eerily like they were from my own teen experiences included:
Maya and Anna become convinced that they have Wiccan powers. (I brought myself multiple velvet-covered spell books and was known to do strange rituals on the full moon).
Maya is cast as the lead in the overly serious high school play and suddenly becomes a primadonna. (Pretty much every detail, down to the drama teacher writing the work himself, happened to me).
Maya calls her mum a bitch, who proceeds to spank her in public. (Very my mother and I, circa 1996).
Maya takes a Chanel shopping bag to school as her ‘prized possession’ for saving if she’d been in the Holocaust. (I had to put my hands over my eyes during this episode. I strongly identified with Maya’s aching desperation for everyone to think she was wealthy and cool when she was far from either).
Seeing stories similar to my own on-screen woke me up to the fact that I am still very uneasy about most of my teen years. Especially the early ones. The crushing way puberty brings on loads of social expectations and hierarchies, which are policed by other teens around you, makes the end of childhood quite brutal for anyone happy being a bit of a weird, imaginative kid. While no one gets through this stage of life without some seriously awkward and anxious moments, there are us oddballs who experience a whole other learning curve.
It’s important to note that there is one key element to Maya’s journey that I haven’t experienced. Maya is dual-heritage, with a Japanese mother and a white American father. The everyday racism she experiences is implicitly and explicitly seeded throughout the show. One of the standout episodes from the series is “Posh” (Season 1, Episode 6), where Maya is forced to play Scary Spice in a school project because she is “tan,” while Anna goes on a cataclysmically misguided white saviour mission to personally end racism.
Another aspect that I sadly don’t identify with is having a best friend. As much of an outcast as Maya is, she’s lucky to have a true BFF in Anna. The level of love and sometimes overly unhelpful support they show each other is incredibly beautiful. This is mainly due to the actors’ on-screen chemistry informed by their own offscreen friendship. Having Anna back up some of my questionable choices would have felt pretty amazing. Instead, I wouldn’t bond with my best friend until an acid trip on the Y2K New Year’s Eve of 1999/2000 (but it was worth the wait).
PEN15’s creators ended the show after two seasons, which felt like a wise decision. The show perfectly captures this coming-of-age moment without going on and seeing these characters evolve beyond it. However, I would have loved to have seen Maya grow up. She has strong queer vibes, and I would have loved to have seen her journey through this realisation.
Perhaps being outed at age 15 (like I was) and finding true allies in the show’s other secretly queer characters of Gabe and Ian. Hopefully, having a first kiss with another queer kid who helps to heal some of Maya’s awful initial experiences with her douchebag boyfriend, Derek. These are dreams I have for Maya Ishii-Peters’ future.
For myself, it’s lovely to now know that when I’m having a grimace-worthy moment processing some of the memories from my adolescent years (which still happens, even in my 40s), I can rewatch this show. Thank you, Maya, for helping me heal a big part of my teen weirdo self.