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One Good Thing: No TV show understands the horror of middle school better than PEN15

The Hulu comedy achingly captures the trials and tribulations of puberty and teenage best friendship.

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Anna (left) and Maya smiling at each other in a scene on PEN15 Hulu

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

In its first season, the conceit of PEN15 seemed straightforward. The Hulu TV series is a woman-led, semi-autobiographical middle school comedy set right around the start of the new millennium; two adult women play their preteen selves, while everyone else in their world is portrayed by more age-appropriate actors. The sell is that the show’s (often raunchy) humor comes from its very specific, very nostalgic Y2K references, and from the dissonance of seeing two grown women perform the hormonal trauma that is seventh grade, right alongside actual preteens.

It’s a good sell, and it made for an incredibly funny and sometimes heart-wrenching watch. I fell in love with 13-year-old Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, coming to forget they were played by women years older than me in real life (30-something PEN15 co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle).

I tore through season one’s 10 episodes when they came out in early 2019. I immediately bought into the show’s deadpan hilarity of adult women in butterfly-print cargo pants, wanting to be liked by “hot” preteen boys and win tickets to a B*Witched concert. But the emotional moments wrapped up in that hilarity — the ones that captured how strange it is to confront your racial, sexual, and personal identities for the first time — won me over even more. In my laughter, I found not just cringey memories and sympathy but a powerful sense of empathy, too.

And where PEN15’s first season concentrated on building out the show’s premise with episodes about AIM and the Spice Girls, its second season (the first seven episodes of which are newly streaming on Hulu) evolves beyond that pretense and looks inward at Maya and Anna. The show becomes more concerned with how strong the bond of friendship can be between young girls, especially as they experience complications on top of what’s already a complicated time of life. And it makes for beautifully relatable stuff, particularly thanks to the show’s increased focus on how puberty strains Maya and Anna’s friendship.

In season two, the girls’ relationship is stretched almost to a breaking point. Anna struggles with her parents’ divorce and seeks out self-empowerment while offering undying support to Maya. Maya delves headfirst into her sexual awakening, continuing to lust after her season-one crush. (As things often go if you’re unpopular in middle school, that ends pretty badly.) I remember experiencing both of these common scenarios, but even the show’s more specific events are powerfully resonant. Anna’s feeling of betrayal when she discovers that Maya’s been getting her period for months already and never told her will likely speak strongly to anyone who watched a friend develop before them. Puberty is more than physical, we all came to learn so quietly; it’s an emotional evolution, too.

Both seasons of PEN15 force possibly unwanted memories of weird hair growth and torturous clothes shopping back into our heads. And while it finds plenty of ways to laugh about them, these are the parts of growing up that I’ve never seen so honestly depicted on any other show. As awkward and painful as they can be to watch, the intimacy of reliving the traumas of middle school is what makes me love PEN15. Anna and Maya’s best friendship makes me remember what it was like growing up with my friends, all of us enclosed within the same confusing walls of what that all meant. We made sense of it together, imperfectly.

The show’s understanding of what female friendship looks like during adolescence is rare to find on TV. Everything that Maya and Anna feel is shared between them; what continues to glue them together is that they’re never self-conscious with each other, comparing their pubic hair while talking on the phone, or yelling made-up incantations while holding hands in the school greenhouse, or awkwardly taking a joke one step too far and pretending to be a baby and breastfeeding mom in the school hallway. (Never forget that these girls are extreme weirdos.)

I consistently cover my mouth with my hands in horrified recognition of what Maya and Anna are going through, more than I do watching any other show. Which is why I found myself sometimes wondering, to quote Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos in his review of the show’s first season, “Who is this show truly for?”

“The best answer is,” Abad-Santos wrote, “[a]nyone whose childhood consisted of pretending to be a hot 26-year-old with brown hair and blue eyes in an AOL chatroom.”

But that answer doesn’t seem exactly right to me. People had cellphones by the time I was in middle school, which slowly pulled them away from AOL Instant Messenger. So for me, the cultural nostalgia of PEN15 — funny as it is — isn’t as meaningful as it might be for other viewers. Instead, learning that the thing you love is “uncool,” trying to impress popular girls and boys, and awkwardly trying to handle a first period on your own: These are the experiences that PEN15 traffics in with such painful authenticity as to render Erskine and Konkle’s real ages invisible. These are the timeless, traumatic experiences I gasped at, surprised and impressed by how much they resembled my own memories of seventh grade. And they’re what has made me fall deeper and deeper for the show.

Pen15 is streaming on Hulu.