Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play teenage ICQ-ties in this sweet Hulu comedy series that’s as funny as it is truthful.
In Hulu’s Pen15, two real-life 30-something actresses (Casual’s Maya Erskine, Rosewood’s Anna Konkle) play 7th graders, Maya and Anna, going through some of the real-life turmoil they had experienced during their young adulthood in 2000.
Is this the most interesting art therapy ever? Imagine getting to redo some of your high school experiences as adults (it’s something that everyone fantasizes about at some point, right?). And what makes this television series a compelling exercise is that it never leans in too hard on the idea that two adult actresses/show creators are acting opposite prepubescents, ones they’re often supposed to have crushes on (although there is a laugh-out-loud scene between Konkle and her 13-year-old boyfriend that capitalizes on the absurd premise at just the right time). Despite the age difference, it’s not hard to view these characters as just older-looking 7th graders (it helps that the actresses appear youthful already, especially the petite-sized Erskine).
The 10-episode season is like a time capsule from the most recent turn-of-the-century, with homages to AIM and the most scandalous movie of the time period—Wild Things. This generation of teenagers probably won’t understand the pitch-perfect cultural significance of KC and JoJo’s “All My Life” playing during an important scene at a school dance, but the show touches on all of the same beats that young people go through today, including bullying, intolerance, unrequited love, and sloppy first kisses, meaning it should resonate with Generation Z the way Freaks and Geeks resonated with Millennials (before they knew they were Millennials).
Erskine, a scene-stealer most recently seen as Alex’s baby-mamma Rae on Hulu’s Casual, finally gets to be front-and-center in a series, and it’s way overdue. Both she and Konkle really do some heartfelt dramatic work toward the end of the season, with Maya dealing with jealousy and Anna her parents’ roller-coaster marriage. What’s most compelling about the tension in Episode 9 “Anna Ishi-Peters” is that some of it is teenage melodrama that will be completely forgotten about in 10 years, which is why it plays out so honestly on screen.
Pen15’s gimmick works two-fold, like a double-sided note passed in class. On one side, you have adult actors playing teenage characters going through relatable issues; on the other side is the message that what you live through as a kid leaves an unforgettable impression that will stick with you even as an adult.
Pen15 streams on Hulu Friday, February 8.