High-school dramas are inevitably nostalgic for anyone who has made it out the other side of the universal trauma that is being a teenager. Some, such as Clueless (1995) are so enriched with the tropes of their time (tartan; knee-high socks; ginormous mobile phones), that to watch them is to sink deeply into a culture of the past, even if it is one so aesthetically far-fetched you’re unsure you ever experienced it the first time around. Others, such as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), are too recent to be authentically nostalgic for anyone who left school more than a year ago. But still their haunting themes – friendship troubles, puberty, anxiety – are timeless enough to pull any viewer back into a state of extreme discomfort, no matter the decade in which they attended school.
Into this genre comes the quick-witted and instantly lovable American comedy show Pen15, which, following middle-schoolers Anna and Maya in the year 2000, is already a blast from the near past. But in its very premise, Pen15 subverts how an audience experiences nostalgia: actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both 33 years old, play the 13-year-old best friends and social outcasts. All the kids around them – the boys they fancy, and the girls who do their best to avoid them – are played by real teenagers. Viewers, who are likely closer in age to Erskine and Konkle than to 13-year-olds, are therefore confronted with a particularly painful brand of nightmare: if it is not enough to simply recall the cringeworthy things you did at school, how about watching someone your current age re-enact them?
There is of course something immediately absurd about all of this on a visual level. As Anna and Maya stroll the school corridors – clearly 20 years too old to be attending school dances or doing laps around a sports field – they look bizarre. Anna in particular is tall – even for an adult woman – and towers over the tiny boys with whom she becomes obsessed. Even without the other kids for a size comparison, it is initially hilarious to see the two of them sitting together (and it often is just them – the pair do not have any other friends) in their pink bedrooms, piled high with Sylvanian Families, wearing prominent braces and noughties bootcut jeans, giggling and gossiping at one hundred miles an hour.
But half an episode in, it begins to feel natural. Erskine and Konkle, who created and co-wrote the show with Sam Zvibleman, are razor-sharp actors who perform the gracelessness of going through puberty with a raucous enthusiasm. Besides, observing the awkwardness of Erskine and Konkle playing 13-year-olds in their adult bodies is an intensely savage reminder of the true horror it is to be a girl of that age, whether you’re feeling pressured into pretending to know how to insert a tampon when you haven’t even started your period, or you’re standing in the PE changing rooms wearing a very padded bra while your neighbour is yet to have developed anything in the breast department whatsoever. Being 13 years old is already pretty bizarre, Erskine and Konkle say, why not have us make it even more so?
Last year Pen15 was nominated for its first Emmy. Thanks to its brilliant writing and warm performances, it’s not hard to see why it’s winning viewers over. And it isn’t all reckless fun and games: in amongst the hilarity, Anna and Maya show a deep affection for one another. Sometimes this is the near-cloying sweetness of early-teen female friendship – endless phone calls, “I love yous”, and grabbing hold of one another at any small drama. At other points, their love feels like something far more grown-up; they are, after all, veering away from childhood and working out how it might be to exist as adults.
This is evident at the end of the second season’s third episode. It’s been a long few days. Anna and Maya have taken up witchcraft, and attempted to use their newfound magic powers to control the mayhem in their lives – namely Anna’s parents’ impending divorce and Maya’s crush on Brandt, which could not be less requited. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone well. As they sit outside in the dark, Anna thinks a spell is making her disappear. She stretches out her hands, and begins to cry. Maya reacts quickly: she holds Anna by the sides of her head and looks straight into her eyes. “Anna, you’re right here. You’re not disappearing, you’re right here. I love you,” she says. Then she clutches her, and strokes her hair: “Can you stop, please, because I need you. I’m your family. We’ll be together forever.”
Here are two 33-year-old women playing 13-year-old girls, caring for each other in the way any of us would care for our teenage selves, if we could.
Pen15 season two is available on NowTV, and airs Mondays, 9pm, Sky Comedy