Hulu’s PEN15: Season 1 review


PEN15 is deserving of all the praise for its unique look into the reality of being a preteen at the turn of the century. But that doesn’t mean the show is without its faults.

I’ll be honest, it took me about half of the first season of PEN15 to really get into it. But by the end, I’ve come around. There’s something truly endearing about the show. Not to mention, as someone who was about two years behind ages the show depicts, there’s some great turn of the century nostalgia in there.

Some of my favorite bits of nostalgia: AOL (everything about it—it taking up the phone line, that painful dial-up noise, coming up with AIM screen names, chat rooms), AIM with strangers, having to call someone’s house and ask if they were there because you didn’t know who was on the other line, all of the late 90’s music they use in the show.

That all said, there were still issues that kept me from truly enjoying the show as much as many others seem to have enjoyed it.

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Let’s start with the positives. Many of the episodes in the second half of the season are spectacular. The way PEN15 tackles race, divorce, puberty, relationships and the insanity that was kids being allowed on AIM is amazing. It’s real and there’s so much inherent drama just in what kids had to deal with.

PEN15’s strength is its willingness to not overlook what kids have to deal with emotionally as “childish.” Just because Maya and Anna are young, doesn’t mean their feelings and thoughts are invalid. PEN15 celebrates the fact that children are smarter than they’re given credit for sometimes and their problems are real and their feelings are valid.

It’s when PEN15 doesn’t have a strong central theme for an episode that the show suffers. Many of the early episodes in the season have the drama that’s entirely based on the lack of conversation.

That’s just a personal pet peeve. There are better ways to create dramatic situations in movies and television than relying on two characters not talking to each other. It’s almost always more dramatic and more interesting to have those characters talk and see where that goes than to have them get mad at each other simply because they won’t be honest.

To PEN15’s credit, I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably very realistic to have many of Maya and Anna’s fights about petty things that would be solved if they just talked to each other.

That’s a worthwhile thing to examine as a show. But that doesn’t make it any less grating to watch and it doesn’t change the fact that the show, as a whole, functions and flows much better when the tension isn’t reliant on them hiding things unnecessarily.

But that’s still not my major complaint about PEN15. At some point, it has to be asked why they didn’t cast teenagers to play Maya and Anna. No disrespect to creators Maya Erskine and Konkle, who are both talented actors. But, for way too much of the series, it was tough for me to look past the fact that a lot of the plots involved these adult women crushing on, making out with, being groped by these literal children.

I’m sure (or at least I assume) that clever camerawork kept anything actually gross from going on, but the issue still remains. Why not cast this with actual teenagers? At some point, someone in the creative process thought that it’s funny to have adults playing these parts. Honestly, it was way too distracting for me for the vast majority of PEN15.

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Despite this, I think PEN15 is a good show. It feels like most shows about kids that age are glossed over or Disney-ified. This isn’t that. PEN15 has no interest in being that. PEN15 takes a real look at what it means to be a kid in 7th grade at the turn of the century.

Stream PEN15 now on Hulu.