We’re Not Joking: You Need To Join The ‘PEN15’ Club Right Now

'PEN15' details teenage sexuality, awkwardness and cruelty in cringe-inducing detail -- and more 2000s nostalgia than we can bear.

PEN15 Stan Australia

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Welcome to ‘Should You Bother Watching’, Junkee’s column which helps to answer the streaming-age’s biggest question: is this show for me? In this one, we tackle PEN15, available on Stan.

PEN15 never explains its main joke: that its two leads are thirty-something actors playing thirteen year olds, surrounded by an age-appropriate cast. It assumes you just know, but not everyone gets it straight away, too trained to accept late 20s actors playing teenage heart-throbs.

If it doesn’t click in the first few scenes, it should by the end of the pilot where the two leads — Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — battle through their first few days at middle school, where bullying is the language of choice.

Based loosely off Erskine, Konkle and PEN15‘s other (off-screen) creator Sam Zvibleman’s experiences growing up in the early 2000s, the show is brutally nostalgic. It’s equally a reminder of bad fashion and questionable trends as it is of the ways in which, as kids, we all mistreated schoolmates to get ahead.

You probably know the macro moments where you were most cruel, but PEN15 forces you to remember the micro — the short-lived nicknames, retorts and feuds you’d forgotten, even if they were once the biggest issue in the world.

PEN15 is named after a classic joke, a juvenile power-play where one person shows they know more than the other, and trick them into writing ‘i love PEN15’ or that they want to join the PEN15 club. It’s fitting that some viewers don’t immediately spot Erskine and Konkle’s age — when you do realise, you feel just as dumb and embarrassed as you did back then, falling for a prank.

While PEN15 might be a sweet, cringe-inducing and incredibly funny ode to nascent sexuality and puberty blues, it also shows that kids aren’t so different from adults, equally prone to cruelty and immaturity.

We’ve all still got growing to do.

I Just Want To Go Back To 2000

Set in the year 2000 with what Vulture calls a “pitch-perfect” aesthetic, PEN15 is a nostalgia overload for millennials.

Where other shows flirt with the past as a way to quickly inspire a sense of familiarity and warmth with their audience (Sex Education, and, to a lesser extent, Stranger Things), PEN15‘s world is painfully lived-in. Everything has been sourced from the era.

We’re talking butterfly clips, a JTT poster, an entire episode revolving around AOL chatrooms, a Wild Things viewing party, a Spice Girls-themed group assignment, shell necklaces, Troll Doll posters and Lisa Frank-esque artworks. Production designer Grace Alie even sourced Teen Beat magazines from the time for Maya’s walls and locker cutouts.

The camera never lingers on any of these everyday items to turn them into a joke, in keeping with how PEN15 treats its characters’ feelings with respect. That doesn’t mean that the throwbacks won’t trigger your own bedrooms and middle-school dances, or the AOL notification sounds won’t usher forth long-repressed memories of weird public chatrooms, and logging on/off so your crush will notice you.

Despite this, PEN15 arrives as a companion to Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s film from last year which follows thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her anxious days and smartphone-scrolling nights.

Much has been written about social media’s role in Kayla’s anxiety, but it’s clear comparing it to PEN15 that some things haven’t changed, just the ways we meet them. At the base of it, their time settings add specific flavour to an universal awkwardness, as teen girls struggle to navigate friendships, self-image and sex.

I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman

With the arrival of PEN15, The New York Times declared “the lustful adolescent girl is having her moment”. Adolescent sexuality, once resigned to gross-outs like American Pie, is currently being treated as more than the butt of a joke.

Alongside Eighth Grade and shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education, PEN15 depicts the shame, confusion and joys of puberty without glorifying it into a sexual conquest.

In one episode, Anna and Maya become obsessed with the power of a pink thong they steal from one of their classmates. While it’s never in sight, when it’s worn they strut through the school halls with a new confidence, excited by their level up into adulthood.

Sex and puberty is constantly framed as a series of firsts, ready to be ticked off hand-in-hand: first kiss, first beer, first cigarette, first second base. In this way, sex is something not really understood, but imagined as a key to becoming An Adult, and Maya and Anna want to be there for each other’s every milestone.

They practice kissing on their bedposts, they steal and share a classmate’s thong, and are reluctant to separate, even if a boy’s just invited one of them into a room.

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine.

At the same time, these girls get horny. Where female teenage sexual expression is usually fetishised and erased into purely romantic, PEN15 delves into the maelstrom of shame, confusion and lust of nascent sexuality.

It’s a testament to the intensity of childhood friendships, as Maya and Anna are (mostly) unafraid to explore things together, to ask weird questions and reveal their dumb moments or shame.

Kids Are Really, Really Mean

Anna and Maya’s friendship might be at the centre of PEN15, but bullying, innocuous and serious, surrounds them.

It takes a deft hand to depict bullying without it feeling like an after school special, but PEN15 manages, partially because Erskine and Konkle can oscillate between cringe and sincerity with ease.

Ask my therapist, and he’ll patiently explain that it’s hard to reflect on your own childhood. But Erskine and Konkle two treat their fictional selves with respect and patience, letting every beat and emotion fall genuinely — even if the audience can’t help but laugh.

PEN15 doesn’t treat these 13-year-olds as vessels for didactic moments, but people who are being shaped by the world.

The show’s at its best when you know how things will pan out — there’s a painful predictability to plots, the scenes so familiar.

Take ‘Anna Iishi-Peters’, where Anna stays with Maya’s family for two days. At first, they’re franticly excited, running through the house and wearing one t-shirt as conjoined twin ‘Mayanna’, though we know, through experience, that even the best of friends need their space. When the fall out comes, it still hurts.

PEN15 doesn’t let its characters off the hook for their age. In one episode, Maya is forced in a group video project into playing a racist stereotype, completely unaware of the context — as Anna and her feel icky after, they interrogate the moment which sits uncomfortably in their friendship.

Anna attempts to ‘end racism’ as a way to absolve herself; Maya realises where her embarrassment about her house’s decor and her home-made lunches comes from. These are things we reckon with in time — if at all — and the show doesn’t treat these 13-year-olds as vessels for didactic moments, but people who are being shaped by the world.

Thanks to Erskine and Konkle’s choice to play their teenage selves, we’re constantly physically reminded that Anna and Maya will, before they know it, be grown up. In one scene Maya asks if they’ll always play with dolls together; Anna answers yes, somewhat reluctantly.

We know they’re on the precipice; with PEN15, we get to stay there for a little longer.

PEN15 is now streaming on Stan.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and when he was 14 was so awkward as an extra in a high-school production of Footloose that he was given a baseball glove and ball in all scenes so he’d have ‘something to do with his hands’. Follow him on Twitter.