One of the frustrating things about adulthood is that the cringeworthy high school memories you’ve tried to forget – having your sloppy first kiss, being embarrassed by your parents, feeling let down by your best friend, performing a concert in front of the whole school – can feel just as fresh decades later. The genius of Hulu series PEN15 is to acknowledge how mortifying those memories can still feel and in a magic trick only possible through the medium of television, to transform them into something genuinely cathartic and enjoyable.
Although other media has captured the desperate longing to fit in and casual cruelty that marks the first few years of high school (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Eighth Grade), nothing else has come close to this show’s portrayal of what it was specifically like to be a teenager in the early 2000s. PEN15 impeccably weaves details from the time into the texture of the show – butterfly clips, cargo pants with drawstrings, gel pens, mixes burnt onto lime green CD-Rs – that give it a lived in, authentic feel. In hindsight, this was a pretty great time to be young, with no social media obsession (although chat platforms were in their infancy and about to blow up, the subject of a season one episode) or mobile phone addiction, just freedom to be a kid and figure things out without the added pressure of creating mediated versions of ourselves.
Two of the show’s creators and writers, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, also star as the lead characters. This casting choice allows the show to achieve a real sense of verisimilitude as the actors fully embody all the awkward physicality of their teenage selves, navigating experiences like clueless interactions with the opposite sex and the excitement of their first school dance. In a NY Times interview Erskine said that making the show was “a good reminder to keep being so kind to myself now, as well as to the 13-year-old version of me”. Not to be like, so dramatic, but watching this show feels like an act of self-care. If you haven’t yet immersed yourself in the teenage diary brought to life that is PEN15, there's still time to binge watch the first ten episodes before the second season airs on Stan from 19 September.
– Tiana Stefanic, Festival and Events Coordinator, 15 September 2020