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TV Series Review

I know that Dante, Milton and plenty of others have offered their thoughts on what the, ahem, bad place might look like. Fire. Ice. Crime-appropriate punishments. But for lots of us, the closest approximation we might have in our own memory banks is seventh grade.

Only a select few students loved middle school, and they were surely free of both acne and self-reflection. (I’m assuming they all own yachts today.) The rest of us loathed it, stepping into middle school's halls every day like convicted killers marching down the Green Mile. Our bodies were changing in unpleasant ways. Our hormones were turning us all into strange creatures straight from Dr. Moreau’s isle. We were moody and mean and horrifically insecure—certain that we were ugly and dumb, and equally sure we’d be that way forever.

Things do get better, of course, but few of us would ever want to go back to the fraught, insecure days of junior high.

Comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are two of the few.

Intro to Geekurlogy

It’s the fall of 2000. Angelina Jolie is married to Billy Bob Thornton, CBS’s Survivor is in its first season and Blockbuster Video has just turned down an offer to buy Netflix, cheap. Meanwhile, 13-year-olds Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone are in seventh grade.

Oh, sure, they may look like they’re older—perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s, in fact. But don’t let that fool you. They’re the most harshly-pecked kids in Trailview Middle School’s exceedingly harsh pecking order, surrounded by (real) kids who have little to say and less to do with them.

It’s not that they don’t try to make inroads here and there, and some classmates do deign to pass a word or two with them in the hallways. Certainly, they each have their own romantic interests.

But they’ve got some allies in their quest for acceptance, too, albeit reluctant ones. Maya’s über-cool eighth-grade brother, Shuji, occasionally offers pointers on how to navigate middle school—as long as Maya and Anna keep it secret. And Sam, a kid they ride to school with, may seem as jerky as they come, but he has a soft heart underneath.

Most importantly, they have each other. And that’s not to be underestimated.

Junior Low

“You are my actual rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils,” Anna tells Maya, and it’s true (if not literally true). As ludicrous and unseemly and profane and grotesque and tawdry as Hulu’s Pen15 can be, Maya and Anna’s friendship feels real and true and oh-so affirming. It reflects the fact that most of us made it through middle school (or junior high) with the help of our faithful friends—the few folks who made life’s slings and arrows if not enjoyable, at least tolerable.

Pen15 feels honest—raw and painful in spots, but funny, filled as it is with the sort of humor that only age and perspective can give. Much of what we see here would fall into Plugged In’s “problematic content” categories, to be sure, but as a graduate of public school myself, I remember a lot of this problematic content vividly. It filled my junior high’s hallways every day.

Which brings us to the core point: While this show is obviously written about middle school, it’s intended for adults—and boy howdy, how adult it can get.

We hear lots of talk about middle school sexual activity (be it real or rumored or imagined or some confluence of all three). Language—beginning with this show's infantile and textually suggestive title—can be incredibly raw and often uttered by the pre- or barely-pubescent actors onscreen. And because we’re talking about being in the teeth of adolescence here, the behaviors we see can be crude and mean and unconscionable.

Yes, for most of us, middle school was a pretty terrible time. Most of us would never want to go back. And while Hulu gives us a clever, surprisingly poignant peek into the constant stresses and occasional joys of those days, Pen15 reminds me that I’m all grown up now. I know better. And I don’t have to go back anymore. Not even on TV.

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Sexual Content

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Crude or Profane Language

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Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Feb. 8, 2019: "First Day"



Readability Age Range





Maya Erskine as Maya Ishii-Peters; Anna Konkle as Anna Kone; Mutsuko Erskine as Yuki Ishii-Peters; Dylan Gage as Gabe; Taj Cross as Sam; Taylor Nichols as Curtis Kone; Anna Pniowsky as Heather; Brady Allen as Brendan; Lincoln Jolly as Alex; Ivan Mallon as Ian; Sami Rappoport as Becca; Melora Walters as Kathy Kone






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On Video

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Paul Asay

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