To Binge or Not to Binge Episode 85: ‘PEN15’


Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star in the Hulu original series “PEN15.” (Courtesy Hulu)

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


A couple of years ago, I was with one of my best friends, laughing about the emo music I listened to in sixth grade and wondering why I thought my life was so hard back then. “You were growing up,” they responded. Until that moment, I hadn’t fully appreciated the intensity and vulnerability of growing up. Isn’t it worth celebrating that we once were — and still are — just human beings awkwardly figuring out what kind of person we want to be? “PEN15” thinks so.

The name doesn’t suggest a whole lot more than a cheap, crude comedy. I glossed over it quite a few times when looking for something new to binge, but when I finally gave it a chance, “PEN15” turned out to be a shockingly powerful experience. Don’t get me wrong: it’s crude — it’s a bit like a live-action “Big Mouth” that’s slower and offers more sincere character development. Contrary to the implications of the show’s title, the crude jokes aren’t all that’s here. “PEN15” is an honest portrayal of adolescence, race in America, and sisterhood.

Co-creators, writers and stars of the show Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle travel back in time to the year 2000, when they were seventh-grade best friends. The 33-year-old comedians are surrounded by actual 13-year-old actors while they explore this climactic era of their lives.

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle navigate messy relationships with their mothers and their own womanhood in “PEN15.” (Courtesy Hulu)

The Verdict

“PEN15” is absolutely binge-worthy.

I’ll admit, the show had me pretty weirded out at first. Erskin’s and Konkle’s quirky turn-of-the-century costume designs don’t exactly convince us as viewers that they’re the same age as their co-stars, but I soon learned that that’s the point. Konkle explains that director and co-writer Sam Zvibleman suggested, “What if there’s no explanation? What if you’re just 13?”

Once you get comfortable with its unusual concept, “PEN15” strikes a balance between comedy and tender handling of the subject matter. From Anna’s fixation on kissing the 13-year-old boy of her dreams to Maya’s discovery of masturbation, there’s no topic that’s off-limits for the comedy of the show. And yet, nearly every episode left me on the verge of tears — the cathartic kind of tears — with the feeling that I’d learned something from my younger self.

Yes, it’s awkward to watch adults pretend to be teens and yes, the show can be so cringey at times that it’s painful to sit through. But I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’d say that being alive in seventh grade isn’t awkward, cringey, and painful. What we’re ultimately given by the show is not a portrait of pain, but resilience and adaptation. That two young women can survive the crucible of middle school, and come out of it still themselves, is an incredible thing.

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine find refuge in witchcraft in “PENI15.” (Courtesy Hulu)

Best Episode

Some episodes certainly hit harder than others. My favorite is “Vendy Wiccany” of season 2. Here, the conflict between Anna’s parents reaches its boiling point, causing her to run away and find refuge in the woods. There, she and Maya discover clues from the universe about their own magical potentials. Their quest to become witches parallels their longing to exist somewhere they feel valued, making this the episode that moves me most.

Content Warnings

“PEN15” captures the hypersexualized and sometimes vulgar atmosphere of middle school. There’s a lot of adult jokes and a few brief scenes of nudity (although the show clearly doesn’t depict Anna and Maya being involved with any of their teenage co-stars). Viewers should also be aware that the show touches on racism, misogyny, and intense family conflict. 

Similar Shows

“Big Mouth” and “Freaks and Geeks.”


5/5 Stars

2 seasons, 17 episodes, about 30 minutes each.

Season 1 and the first half of season 2 are available to stream on Hulu. The last 7 episodes of season 2 are confirmed by Hulu but the release date is TBA.


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