Hulu’s new comedy series Pen15 has a pretty unique concept in that it revolves around a group of seventh grade school kids, but two of the thirteen year old’s are played by adult actresses, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, one who is 25 and the other 30. But is it a case of a cute idea and no substance? Is there an actual reason to do such a thing? Or does it let the show do things other teen comedies simply can’t?
Set nineteen years ago in the year 2000 Erskine and Konkle play younger versions of themselves as they relive those difficult middle school years, starting on the very first day of seventh grade. They’re obsessed with boys (even if said boys are busy punching each other in the balls) and that’s what most of this first episode centres around, with the girls fancying certain boys at least until said creatures prove themselves to be somewhat twattish. Which given my memories of school at that age means it’ll probably happen an awful lot.
They mine the nostalgia factor effectively, what with dodgy haircuts, the trashy teen magazines of the time and in one scene Konkle acts out a scene from Ace Ventura Pet Detective which is beautifully funny. The way little things are made to feel incredibly over dramatic generates a lot of humour, and it’s also surprisingly brutal in places, with the main plot of the episode taking shape when Erskine’s described as the ugliest girl in school and Konkle is mocked for wearing a bra when she doesn’t need too. But it’s also sweet and affecting seeing the two characters stand up for and take care of each other, and adds a real warmth to the show. After this event takes place the two girls seek help from Maya’s Eighth Grader brother who at first isn’t interested until he hears about the ugliest girl in school jibe and though he declines to beat them up he teaches the girls how to verbally destroy a boy. Of course they go too far but it’s hilarious stuff, especially when they run off leaving everyone appalled by their actions.
As good as the child actors are the two adults are easily the best, so their casting and the concept makes a lot of sense, their performances are painfully honest and while there’s a lot of cringe comedy it feels very real and genuine too, and thankfully the cringe element is only a minor part of it so far as such a thing has been done far too often of late. It definitely wouldn’t have been as funny if the two leads were played by thirteen year olds, there’s a slightly urgh and creepy element to their fancying thirteen year old boys initially but it’s easy to forget about once you buy in to the idea that they are the same age as they’re such strong actors. My only very minor complaint is that I have no idea why it’s called Pen15, bar the innuendo element it doesn’t make any sense, but hopefully that will be revealed over the next nine episodes.
In the realms of high school shows it’s not quite up their with Freaks and Geeks but then this is only the pilot so maybe it’s unfair of me to make such a comparison. I guess that’s just the kind of guy I am though, and to compliment the show it’s far better than pretty much every other school set series, yes, even Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (which might sound like I’m taking the piss again but it’s genuinely a fun show even after all these years) and I’m really looking forward to seeing where they take these characters next.