Review: Despite a Crowded Field and Stiff Competition, ‘Pen15’ Remains a Standout

The pantheon of media portraying pubescent escapades has been steadily expanding in recent years. Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, Euphoria, Good Boys, Book Smart, Mid-90’s. It’s becoming a booming industry all its own, complete with the tropes we’ve come to expect ever since Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill took us for a ride in 2007’s Superbad. Offbeat, quirky protagonists who manage to avoid all social circles completely. Portrayals of strain in friendships that must stand the test of growing older. Dick jokes. That’s all here too, present and accounted for in Hulu’s new series Pen15. And yet despite these well-worn ideas and tropes, the duo of Maya and Anna make an eloquent case for your attention and refuse to blend into the background of their forebears. 

Nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series, Pen15 offers a refreshing take on the typically male-dominated field of explicit teenage comedy. Never before has there existed a female duo in this genre that is allowed to indulge in such hilarious and risqué scenarios. Too often this end of the spectrum is reserved for the boys, but no more. And that is truly a blessing, because Pen15’s female perspective is so essential to its unique brand of charm.

Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) are very much the fulcrum for this authentic, often surreal story that plays out over ten excellent episodes. Both Erskine and Konkle, who are also credited as writers, creators and producers, shine with a brilliance that so often defies expectations. Do they possess all of the same traits that so many other hormonal big screen duos have shared in the past? Absolutely. But this never prevents a fresh and cinematic insight from blooming over the course of the series, which does a fantastic job of capitalizing on the strengths of television. 

Credit: Hulu

An episodic format allows greater depth and breadth of topics than would typically be manageable in film. This results in deeper, more well-rounded characters, and allows Pen15 to avoid the typical pitfalls that often plague its colleagues. There is no need for the lavish, over-the-top house parties that threaten suspension of disbelief on the grounds of their sheer absurdity, nor does it need to delve into the shock theater of hard drugs, violence and sexual abuse to keep you engaged in the story it’s trying to tell (I’m looking at you, Euphoria.)

None of this is to say that Pen15 is neutered or tame. Absurdity abounds. Maya is haunted by the image of her dead ojichan, a projection of her shame around masturbation. A video project for school involving the Spice Girls results in Anna partaking in a hunger strike against racism. In one of my favorite scenes, a thong stolen from a classmate is examined by an eager Maya at home and in the process is transformed into an object of reverence, a sort of gateway to femininity that Maya washes with monastic patience, complete with swelling orchestral music and painfully golden lightning. It is both beautiful, uncomfortable and undeniably unique, and it’s but one example of the vast amount of creativity that has been poured into this program.

Credit: Hulu

The cinematography is perhaps one of the best examples of this creativity in action. Through diligent and creative framing the show escapes the trappings of purely verbal comedy and employs a greater variety of comedic tools. Visual comedy is equally present, creating a balance that is at times beautiful and at others unbelievably uncomfortable by way of painfully accurate nostalgia. Everyday items are turned into objects of reverence and potent symbols of transformation, such as the aforementioned pair of panties, a stray cigarette retrieved from a bathroom stall or a carefully wadded note that’s been passed through several classmates. Pen15 is certainly unafraid of taking creative liberties and infusing new life into otherwise tired scenes, leaving them feeling new and interesting. Characters float, ghosts appear, and intricate, dream-like sequences of dance-offs and fantasies shine through an impressive level audio and visual polish.

Pen15 also perfects the art of recreating that quintessential look and feel of the early 2000’s. Girls and boys gather in a dark basement to sneakily watch a copy of 1998’s Wild Things, complete with its chunky plastic box from Blockbuster. An episode devoted almost entirely to the nuances of AOL Instant Messenger is packed with enough auditory familiarity to send even the staunchest among us reeling backwards towards the past. If you’re willing to come along for the ride I guarantee you’ll be transported too, back to when landlines and Ask Jeeves freshly-burnt CD’s provided the perfect stage upon which to perform this latest iteration of the teenage duo comedy. Pen15 has a long family tree, and it will certainly not be the last of its kind. But it will stand as an example of mastery of the form, an inspiring testament to both the horrors and joys of adolescence and the power that they can maintain over each of us.

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