What is PEN15?
Apparently, Pen15 is a game kids played in middle school to trick kids to write penis on their arm. You write PEN14 on your arm and tell the next kid they can join the club and be number 15. Or something like that. Hilarity ensues. Clearly, I wasn’t cool enough to know about this game, much like the creators of Pen15 the show, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine.
Pen15 the show is about the dumpster fire that is middle school. Anna and Maya channel their middle school selves by donning the best clothes the early 2000s had to offer, suffering through the ubiquitous braces and retainers, and taping down their boobs. That’s not a metaphor, they play seventh graders.
It might sound like a silly premise that wouldn’t work, but let me tell you, I was cracking up alone in my living room within the first minute of the show. My cat was embarrassed by me, it was a whole thing. Much like another favorite of mine, Netflix’s Big Mouth, it brings back all the nostalgia of your youth but in a way that you can laugh about it rather than cry. Pen15 is especially nostalgic for me because I was also a seventh grader in the early 2000s. I too was obsessed with gel pens, wore pants that converted into shorts, and made my first screen name hoping to seem chill while still like, cool.
Watching Pen15 evokes all the feelings of middle school, most prominently, the importance of those crazy, intense friendships you form at that age. They were friends forever, besties for life, must spend every minute together or at the very least on the phone with each other types of relationships. I spent more time on the phone with my middle school best friend than I ever have with my boyfriend of years. We’d get home from school where we had every class together and get on the phone until it was time for dinner. And then IM after that. And then do it all over again the next day. Pen15 embodies this ride or die friendship. Maya and Anna are extensions of each other. They lift each other up, they defend each other, and they help each other get through the years-long cringe that is middle school. It’s lovely to watch.
I wish I had had this show when I was younger to make me feel more normal. Or at least to realize we were all little aliens trying to fit in in middle school, and no one – no one – was cool.
Pen15 is the most fun I’ve had watching TV so far this year. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with real issues – it does – but they’re cushioned by the friendship between Maya and Anna. And having them played by adults lets the show get away with showing those traumatizing middle school moments in great detail. Maya discovers masturbation in one episode, Anna has an unsavory first kiss – it wouldn’t be fun to watch a 13-year-old act those moments out, but since they’re adults (even though it’s scarily easy to forget this most of the time), it airs on the side of just a little uncomfortable, rather than horrifying. I promise it’s in a good way though. I don’t promise that you won’t be forced to relive your most embarrassing middle school moments though…
Pen15 is streaming on Hulu now!