PEN15 makes the pains of growing up hilarious — and reminds us to have empathy for today's kids
We can all relate to the anxiety of not knowing what our future holds, and we could all use a laugh about it
Middle school can be intense. Whether navigating friendship groups that feel increasingly complicated, developing epic (and often unrequited) crushes, or seeing how the hit of puberty is leaving wildly different marks on you and your classmates, it's both an exciting and terrifying time to be in the world. And it can be difficult to really remember your younger self living it.
That's why PEN15 feels like it pulls off the impossible: it makes revisiting that age stomach-achingly hilarious. And by allowing us to time-travel back to our younger selves — so naive, so awkward — it connects us to everyone who has also been through growing pains, and reminds us of the value in meeting uncertainty with passionate optimism.
Premiering early last year, the comedy TV series earned critical acclaim but still has yet to receive the attention it deserves from a larger audience. The show begins in the fall of 2000, and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) are best friends. They live in a world of dial-up internet, landlines, and the identity-making possibilities of AIM chat rooms populated with screen names like FlyMiamiBro22. They wear toothy smiles that gleam with metal, and low-waisted cargo pants that show off their midriffs. Each episode is outrageous and hysterical in its specificity. In a bid to be cool, Maya passes out from sniffing computer cleaner with girls who seem fearless but panic at the sound of parents coming home. In another episode, she finds her body suddenly bursting with curiosity about sex, and subsequently begins to see her ojichan's ghost looming wherever she goes. Yet as specific as these experiences are to the characters and the time they live in, they seem to stretch far beyond their comedic pulses. Each funny moment taps into feelings that we can all relate to: the desire to control the way we are perceived, or the sense of shame that can coat desire like a bad taste in the mouth.
I am younger than the show's writers, but I can still see myself in their grade seven selves, reflected back in the eyes of disapproving girls. I remember rolling my eyes at the dancers (read: popular girls) who spent recesses gossiping with one another as they leaned against the school's brick facade. And even though I was confident that I was having more fun playing four square or making "short films" about Life as a Seventh-Grader, I couldn't help being curious about them, ensnared as I already was in the trap of trying to grow up fast. Their rumoured exploits stirred my imagination, like the drinking "game" I had heard they played, taking a shot of their parents' Tanqueray for each letter in the alphabet and trying to see if the four of them could collectively down 26 drinks. They definitely seemed older than me, less scared. It felt like I was living in a world threatening to splinter, seizures of curiosity and anticipation pushing hard against the lessons I had gleaned during childhood, like the idea that smoking a single cigarette would make you an addict, or kissing someone would transform you into someone entirely different.
But maybe the funny ways that we imagine the future as children can help us find a little hope now. In PEN15, Anna's first kiss isn't what she expects it to be — but she still has a story to laugh about with Maya that night in bed, and later, a different crush to pursue. Yes, my daydreams about adulthood were steeped in mysticism and nowhere near accurate, but I delighted in the abilities of my imagination, knowing change was inevitable. As adults, a nice dose of excitement for the future can feel like treasure sifted from the sand.
What we get time and again watching PEN15 is an authenticity that reminds us to take seriously and hold with compassion both our own younger selves and the young people in our lives.- Ginger Greene
Like Maya and Anna, my best friend was my lifeline in middle school. My own experience with alcohol, for example, consisted of a single summer afternoon in which we'd shared two strawberry beers and promptly fallen asleep. We moved together in a huddle of whispers through that cramped building, hyper from Fruit Roll-Ups and the announcement that we could be in pairs for an assignment. Having a best friend to sit with at lunch and laugh with at sleepovers made the rocky terrain of growing up navigable. It helped make the experience not only bearable, but even sometimes fun.
We see this so clearly in the relationship between Maya and Anna. Just like my best friend and I were, Maya and Anna are in it together — not just as characters, but also as real-life collaborators. PEN15 follows in the recent TV trend of quasi-autofiction where the main characters are played by the show's writers and bear their actual first names (Broad City, Ramy, Insecure). Here, though, Maya and Anna are 30-somethings playing their 13-year-old selves. It's surprising how easily you accept this, wholeheartedly investing in the actors who are, in reality, 20 years older than their on-screen counterparts. You feel the panic that they'll be found out when they steal Heather's thong (of course her name is Heather); you cringe with embarrassment when Maya gets sick in the middle of a school recital; and your eyes water at Anna's loneliness as she lies in bed listening to her parents fight. There is something about watching these adults play children that connects us to our own younger selves — tucked inside us like nesting dolls, full of memories packed with love and fear and anger. The two stars embody all of the innocence and eagerness of that age, and watching them, we believe them, laugh with them, and feel for them.
When I was in grade seven, the tiniest argument with my best friend could make my stomach roll for hours. In PEN15, Maya and Anna get in fights too. In one especially poignant episode, Maya's white classmates make her play a servant in a group project because she is "tan", and Anna doesn't stand up for her. Circling around each other like a sparring match, Maya explains to Anna how hurt she was as Anna tries to understand. Their earnestness expertly moves us from laughter to tears as we watch Maya struggle to confess her disappointment in the person she trusted most while insisting on her right to affirm her difference, her own experience of the world. What we get in this episode, and time and again watching PEN15, is an authenticity that reminds us to take seriously and hold with compassion both our own younger selves and the young people in our lives.
This fall, kids are going back to school in a world of uncertainty, loaded with pocket-sized sanitizers. The anxiety of not knowing what our future holds, which PEN15 so brazenly tackles in the land of middle school, is something that everyone — no matter their age — is feeling right now. The show reminds us that when we can see one another's experiences clearly, we remember we are not alone. Because really, how different are we from the kids heading through heavy doors with unzipped backpacks and crumpled face masks?
In a time marked simultaneously by stagnation, turmoil, and hurried anticipation, PEN15's fearless honesty is exactly what we need right now. The show doesn't shy away from what matters; in fact, we see that even tiny moments can come hole-punched with significance, light shining through like small suns. But PEN15 also gives us something that we all desperately could use: a good laugh. I take great pleasure in watching Maya and Anna stomp unabashedly through their lives, fingers linked, foreheads pressed together, bounding toward uncertainty with trust and glee — and hope that I will find it within myself to somehow do the same.
Season 2 of PEN15 arrives on CBC Gem on October 16th.