- "We're laughing at it because it's absurd and reminds us of middle school and how embarrassing it was, but also it reminds us of how visceral these feelings were."
The pandemic has kept many of us from leaving the house, but honestly, why would you want to? There is too much TV to watch to go outside. Outside doesn’t have Hulu or Netflix or HBO Max. To encourage you to stay home and stay safe, comedian/writer Rima Parikh and myself (two people who watched just as much TV in the Beforetimes) will be diving deep into the shows we’re loving or lovingly hate-watching, social-distance-style, over Google chat.
No one really wants to go back to middle school. No one apparently except for Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who not only revisit their tween memories but fully embody them by playing themselves as early aughts seventh graders in their Hulu comedy PEN15. In season two the duo tackles slut-shaming, evolving friendships, witchcraft, middle school theater, and the omnipresence of awkwardness and shame in every adolescent experience. It’s a trip down memory lane well worth taking.
Brianna Wellen: As women of a certain age, it feels like PEN15 was made for us. Made to remind us of all the middle school memories we'd rather forget.
Rima Parikh: Oh my god, it sucks you back in and really PUTS you in the place. There are very few times when I want to be like, that person who's like, "Gen Z doesn't get what it was like," but watching PEN15 turns me into an old crow shaking her cane being like, "Back in MY DAY, someone random from your school would get on AIM, start talking to you and your gals, and pretend to be a group of friends from Bolivia who happened to have the same name as you!"
BW: Nothing made me instantly flash back more than the AIM episode. Being 13 and inappropriately interacting with a stranger in an AOL chatroom is a rite of passage for millennials.
I feel like the general conceit of the show, these two thirtysomethings playing the middle school versions of themselves, might be hard for some people to get past. But I think it's a brilliant choice that not only allows these two leads to shine, but really drives home the point that these middle school insecurities and experiences are always a part of us, even when we're quote unquote grown ups.
RP: It's so good. Maya and Anna are so good at being middle schoolers. Like it's almost scary. But it also played out in a new way this season—like in the scenes where Anna and Maya both fantasize that they're older versions of themselves. Because even that feels like such a true middle school experience: seeing yourself in one way when you're alone, versus how you see yourself with your peers (and, of course, how your peers see you).
BW: That was an incredible added layer, especially when Maya is reciting her monologue for the school play. It's incredibly comforting to know that imagining yourself as a chain smoking old woman is a universal experience.
RP: (Also the surprise boob was very jarring.)
BW: THE BOOB! It really was! Especially in this season the show toes the line between teen naivety and adult retrospective even more closely, and it's a really wonderful balancing act to take in.
RP: Yeah! It's that kind of absurdity that reminds you that these characters are played by adults. I think even more jarring was going from the boob to the weird theater teacher that takes us back into the setting. Every middle school and high school has one . . . at least one . . .
BW: Rima, were you, like me, a theater kid?
RP: So I really, really wanted to be a theater kid, but I was so so so shy, so the theater teacher would have to tell me to speak up and loosen up and all that and I would like, freak out and not do that! I took theater classes for the first two years of high school and did theater in middle school, and then after I didn't make any of the plays, I was like, "OK, fuck it, the social justice kids are better than you losers anyway!"
I tried to start an improv group and asked my theater teacher for help and he was like, "why would we need that? we already have THEATRE." When you're reading "theatre" there, please pronounce every syllable.
BW: Oh, of course! As a theater kid I know annunciation is KEY.
RP: I'm so happy we make fun of theater kids now. Tell me about your theater career! This IS relevant to the show!
BW: I auditioned for every play and was never cast! So I painted sets and strongly relate to Anna in this show.
RP: Yes! It was so nice seeing Anna find her groove somewhere, even if she maybe went a little overboard.
BW: What I love is the specific way in which the series is able to skewer school theater, and the strangely serious source material always given to children who are way too young, in a way that feels so relatable and real even though it's a trope that's been tackled so many times before.
Sure, there are some really groundbreaking episodes that touch subjects like female masturbation that aren't as often focused on in tween shows, but when this show can make fun of theater kids in a completely new way, that's its own kind of magic.
RP: I wonder how much of that is because of the way the show gives serious gravity to the stakes for each character, where we're laughing at it because it's absurd and reminds us of middle school and how embarrassing it was, but also it reminds us of how visceral these feelings were. Like in the witchcraft episode, where Maya and Anna really, really believe in this supernatural occurrence, and they have the line of logic to “prove it.”
BW: So true. For as hilarious this show can be, it is just as deeply emotional. It's what makes it feel relevant to bring up in therapy!
More so than a theater kid, I was a witch kid in middle school. I had those exact interactions with one of my best childhood friends, and an even more embarrassing moment years later when we both tried to pretend we totally didn't believe we were actually casting spells (I still kind of believe it).
RP: There's something about middle school where you're good at trusting yourself, but for all the wrong reasons! Also for the record, I believe you cast real spells.
BW: And this is why I buy crystals now. To keep the spells alive.
RP: The closest I came to witchcraft was at a sleepover at my friend's house, she thought she accidentally summoned a jinn and then we both screamed until her parents told us to shut the fuck up. Not in those words, TECHNICALLY.
- Who among us didn't cast spells in middle school?
BW: I do appreciate that every character in this show is seen through the eyes of the middle school characters. Yes, there are nods from the outside to the perspective of the creators of the show as adults, but there are no winks or nods from the adult characters about how they are viewing these situations. They are really only one step above the "wah wah" Charlie Brown teachers, unless being revered or despised by Anna and Maya. In that way it affirms the perspectives and feelings that we have at that age even more.
RP: Yes! It doesn't give the audience an entryway into belittling teen girls just because they're teen girls.
BW: On the contrary it shows just how complex and badass teen girls are! And speaking of, let's talk about the actual teen girl actors on this show! Wow!
BW: Who didn't know or wasn't themselves a Maura!
RP: I'm trying to figure out how to describe the feeling of watching Maya and Anna interact with Maura. Like, wanting to be like, "You can tell her to stop! She doesn't have any power!" but also feeling trapped, because she does have power in that relationship. Like the feeling of having a persistent lump in your throat.
BW: And it really shows the power of confidence in a room full of kids with every insecurity hitting them at once. All she had to do was walk up and say, “hello” to instantly get Maya and Anna under her thumb.
RP: Also, speaking of the younger actors on the show: Gabe!
BW: GABE! His storyline unfolding was such a pleasant surprise. Adding in Maura and Gabe in this way made the world feel that much more real, not just some kind of bizzaro fever dream.
RP: I didn't anticipate him having a storyline and I like the way it rolled out. It felt nice to not have the Maya-Gabe stuff so Maya-focused. It also reminds me of how small the ecosystem is in middle school.
BW: There was a point in time when I thought to myself, I'll remember the first and last name of everyone in my seventh grade class until the day I die.
RP: I think I also went through a phase where I tried to memorize everyone's name and how to spell it? You know, for the mems.
BW: Watching this also made me really reflect on how the way we're taught to interact with people in middle school really sticks with us. Even as a 30-year-old I feel embarrassed to tell someone I like like them, and I would never admit to clogging a toilet. There's a lot of shame instilled in us as kids and stays with us, and I think PEN15 is helping to normalize that shame.
RP: It does take a lot of reworking your brain to not be like, "OK, I should be embarrassed all the time, right?" I think I am a little freer about clogging toilets.
BW: That's progress.
RP: At one point, my parents used to limit how much toilet paper I could bring into the bathroom because they were like, "we don't know what you're doing in there but it's not good.”
RP: That season finale ripped my heart out of my chest and threw it in a juicer! That scene right at the end where Sam waves while they're driving away was so quick. And did exactly what it needed to do.
BW: And the finale was especially impressive considering it was a makeshift ending when the rest of the season was stalled because of COVID! The "back half" of this season is now coming out sometime next year.
RP: I'm so ready.
BW: But I think the power in this show is that any episode could be the finale! Each one packs such a punch!
RP: I have this silly fear that Maya and Anna are going to run out of middle school experiences to write about. Because I have fully blocked out how long and bad middle school was.
BW: If this show has done anything for me, it's unearthed an endless pit of awkward middle school experiences I had definitely repressed. But it feels good to now laugh about them and let them go! PEN15 is therapy.
RP: Yes! It's so comforting knowing that that experience is more universal than we remember it.
BW: This is AIM user lawnflamingo24 signing out of the chat, please enjoy the Weezer lyrics in my away message.
RP: rims94 says ttyl. v