Halfway through “Pen15″ comes a scene we’ve seen a million times before. A teenager, fumbling to understand their own changing body, figures out that masturbating can feel amazing, only to have their well-meaning mother open the door and catch them in the act. This pubescent horror story is so ubiquitous onscreen that it’s practically become a requisite in most any coming of age story, but there’s one basic, crucial difference between that cliché and “Pen15’s” take. That humiliated teen is almost always a boy. “Pen15,” by deliberate contrast, hands that scene over to a girl, who’s embarrassed and terrified and secretly thrilled to have figured out what she can do for herself, without any help at all.
“Pen15” flips the adolescent script like this so many times with such clever insight that it can genuinely become disorienting after a lifetime of never seeing anything quite like it onscreen. It feels like watching a show entirely about the “freaks” from “Freaks and Geeks,” except it was explicitly written for and by women.
The new Hulu comedy, which follows a pair of 13 year-old best friends braving middle school circa 2000, stars co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle and was produced by the Lonely Island, the comedy trio that has so often found success in that singular intersection between “filthy” and “unexpectedly sweet.” (Sam Zvibleman acts as a third co-creator.) Erskine and Konkle, adult comedians, play adolescent versions of themselves; every other seventh grader on the show is played by an actual teenager.
It’s a risky gambit, and an occasionally awkward one when Erskine and Konkle’s characters crush hard on boys played by, well, boys. (As a disclaimer: Any sensitive scenes conspicuously replace those actors with adult body doubles.) But once the show settles into a rhythm and the cognitive dissonance of seeing them in the roles wears off, the move pays off. There is, after all, a lot of truth to the idea that some teen girls grow and mature faster than they or anyone else around them might realize. Seeing them played by adults — who, not for nothing, absolutely nail the true flailing weirdness and insecurities of being a teen — slyly underlines that unique growing pain.
In getting to walk in their own 13 year-old shoes again, Erskine and Konkle tackle their parts with such commitment, attention to detail, and total lack of pretension that it’s impossible to imagine a version of “Pen15” without their retrospective self-awareness. If you grew up as a teen girl, no matter when, so much of “Pen15” will ring sharply and sometimes uncomfortably true. (Though, okay, maybe the episode all about the dawn of AOL Instant Messenger will ring truest to those of us who also waited for the internet to come screeching to life so we could dissect our classmates’ cryptic away messages.)
As characters, Maya and Anna are silly and funny, caring and earnest, nervous and excited even (especially) when they try to pretend otherwise. They love each other so much it sometimes hurts. They protect each other, or try to, with a determination that often stumbles but always comes through in the end. (One standout episode has Maya, who is half-Japanese, struggling to acknowledge her classmates’ casual racism towards her — a cause Anna takes up with good intentions and terrible execution.) They have big dreams, and even bigger expectations for what they want out of life now that adulthood is seemingly within their grasps.
But in a true to life twist that TV rarely allows, they’re also only occasionally ready for the next step they feel they’re supposed to be taking. First drinks, kisses, dances all sound better in theory than they usually are in reality, and “Pen15” is smart not to shy away from that disappointing disparity. There are so many story possibilities in that awkward space — which, again, has been explored for teen boys ad nauseum, and so rarely for teen girls that “Pen15” feels like something of a minor miracle.
Because even in a TV age that’s given us puberty comedy gems like “Big Mouth” and “Sex Education,” I’ve never seen a TV show that nails the truly bizarre experience that is being a simultaneously over-confident and incredibly insecure teenage girl like “Pen15” does. Usually, teen girls are depicted as completely naive or wise beyond their years sexual dilettantes. There are rarely any characters who exists outside those two extremes, and if there is, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. “Pen15” lets them take center stage, and in doing so, proves exactly why they should’ve always been there in the first place.
Comedy, 30 mins. 10 episodes; all watched for review. Premieres February 8 on Hulu.
Cast: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Mutsuko Erskine, Taj Cross, Anna Pniowsky, Sami Rappoport, Dallas Liu.
Crew: Executive producers: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Sam Zvibleman, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Becky Sloviter, Shelley Zimmerman, Brett Bouttier, Jordan Levin, Joe Davola, Marc Provissiero, Brooke Pobjoy, Debbie Liebling, Gabe Liedman.