There are so many ways that Hulu’s PEN15 could have gone wrong. For one thing, the series stars creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — two women in their 30s — as 13-year-olds. And even though Erskine and Konkle look younger than their actual age (especially in costumes and makeup designed to make them look younger), they in no way look 13. Plus, when you consider all of the stuff that TV Maya and Anna have to do — like have crushes on 14-year-old boys played by very real teenage boys — the potential for the show to become unbearably gross is always present.
But PEN15 is instead an early contender for one of 2019’s best shows, an unexpectedly moving tribute to the power of middle school friendships, right alongside some incredibly funny cringe comedy. Erskine and Konkle have set the series in the year 2000 — a.k.a. when they were actually young teenagers — which gives it a boost of readymade nostalgia and makes it kind of like a TV Lady Bird.
PEN15 isn’t the first series from YouTube stalwart AwesomenessTV (that would be the 2013 Nickelodeon sketch comedy series AwesomenessTV), but it is the first to find a winning formula in the Venn diagram intersection between Awesomeness’s laser focus on teen viewers and a more open vision that appeals to any viewer who might remember what it was like to be a teenager, or how it feels to be just a little awkward.
“Pen15 flips the adolescent script like this so many times with such clever insight that it can genuinely become disorienting after a lifetime of never seeing anything quite like it onscreen. It feels like watching a show entirely about the ‘freaks’ from Freaks and Geeks, except it was explicitly written for and by women.” Caroline Framke, Variety
Metacritic score: 82 out of 100
Where to watch: PEN15’s entire first season is streaming on Hulu.