‘PEN15’ Exposes the Deep Tragedy of Being a Millennial
Season 2 of the Hulu comedy, in which its thirtysomething creators recreate their Y2K middle-school experience, is even deeper, funnier, and more traumatizing.
Millennials are older than they’ve ever been. It’s upsetting for everyone.
It’s upsetting for them as they find their floors suddenly carpeted with their own thinning hair, become armchair experts on heartburn medications, and grapple with an education that made them experts on mitosis and meiosis yet still unsure what the hell a 401(k) or an insurance deductible is.
It’s upsetting for the younger people, forced to endure their “when I was your age” ramblings on dial-up internet connections and eye-rolls over TikTok.
And it’s upsetting for the older people—the boomers who thought millennials were entitled and overdosing on avocado toast when the passing of time has actually revealed them to be a lost generation whose adolescence was defined by perhaps the most significant terrorist attack in the country’s history, who entered the workforce in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and are now, as The Atlantic reported, “entering their peak earning years in the midst of an economic cataclysm more severe than the Great Recession.”
It’s not new to talk about millennials. Lord knows it’s not. But, as they reach this stage, there does seem to be a significant turning point: Feeling for them.
What it means to be a millennial has been explored academically, theoretically, and, often judgmentally. But it hasn’t been explored creatively, at a human level. Certainly not with the brilliance, empathy, and insight of PEN15, a love story to the crowd that came of age around Y2K that exposes their greatest tragedy: Being them. Well, being us. (Hi, the millennial is me.)
The Emmy-nominated comedy series returns to Hulu Sept. 18 in all its heart-shredding, hormone-confused, beautifully awkward and painfully traumatizing glory. If I had a gel pen, I would be doodling hearts all over this article. I’d set my AIM away message with a cryptically poignant lyric from a Brian McKnight song. I’d yell, “No I don't, shut up!” at my parents if I overheard them telling one of their friends how much I loved it.
That is to say that the 33-year-old duo, who co-created the series along with Sam Zvibleman, act alongside actual pre-teens—a Saturday Night Live-esque gimmick that is so well executed that it almost instantaneously evaporates.
Erskine is Maya Ishii-Peters, a half-Japanese cyclone of frayed nerves sparking mischievousness, confidence, devastation, regret, curiosity, horniness, and sadness, sometimes all in rapid, dizzying succession.
Konkle plays Anna Kone, a sensitive empath whose identity crisis is complicated by the fact that her parents are going through a divorce and she feels a duty to be everyone’s support system, be it her heartbroken mother or her vulnerable best friend, who always requires a hand to hold before leaping to the next scary risk. (This is middle school, so think: Talking to a boy, tasting a beer, staying up all night at a sleepover, or wearing a new shirt to school.)
To disguise their age, to the extent to which the sight gag both is and isn’t the point, Erskine tapes down her chest and sports a bowl cut, the result of Maya trying to give herself layers by looking at a photo of Sarah Michelle Gellar from Teen magazine as a guide. Konkle, who wears braces, hunches her tall, thin frame in a way recognizable to anyone who has folded or contorted their bodies because they are uncomfortable with taking up space—a familiar sight in a hallway of middle-school girls.
They nail the insecure mannerisms: the timid shuffle up to a group of classmates whose conversation they want to join; the inability to make eye contact while asserting themselves; the whiplash between embarrassed silence and loud explosions of emotion. Konkle, in particular, has this way of craning her neck and hanging her mouth agape in a slight droop that bears her braces, her arched eyebrows mirroring that inverse parabola of sadness. It’s the perfect expression of pubescent despair.
The subconscious knowledge that you’re watching grown women relive the experiences that shaped who they are as the people they have become is incredibly profound. Swirls of wishful thinking that you could have the same journey, the relief that you don’t have to, and, either way, the resonance of knowing what those girls and, now, these women are going through make for a layered and healing viewing experience.
Season 1 begins with Maya and Anna spitting hope through orthodontia. They’re certain that seventh grade is going to be their year, a tweenage optimist’s swan dive off a cliff into the craggy waters of bullying, Richter-scale emotions, and incessant mortification.
The show is a time capsule of Y2K references and artifacts. Season 2 begins with the BFFs talking on the phone after their middle-school dance, Anna on a see-through corded phone as she and Maya play MASH and download on boy drama. But it’s also a Pandora’s box of milestones, emotions, and repressed memories (or, for many of us, lingering scars), unearthed, opened, and felt again after all these years.
It’s the adrenaline-filled thrills and the realized nightmare of a time in a person’s life when everything is new, exciting, and unknown: Body parts and body hair; kisses, hormones, and sexual exploration; friends and mistakes made under peer pressure; bras and thongs; and, especially in this Y2K setting, the world at your fingertips through an AIM chat or a query to Ask Jeeves.
The first episode of Season 2 sees Maya and Anna go to a pool party, relenting to a full-body hair shave and ritualistic popping of ear acne as they primp, secretly excited for the soiree. They dance to wildly inappropriate hip-hop music as they get ready. (True millennials snicker at the faux outrage over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” which plays like a church hymn compared to the raunchy lyrics we’d sing along to then.)
It’s brilliant to cast the rest of the students on the show with actual kids. The pool party is a symphony of awkward phases performed by an orchestra of out-of-tune instruments. It’s set-dressing that encapsulates the show’s marriage of comedy and horror, bridging the genres with a simultaneously uncomfortable and cathartic reflection of the human spirit at its most brittle stage of development.
Throughout the season, the girls deal with being slut-shamed, compare vagina smells, go full Exorcist demon on their mothers, cycle through crushes, deepen their friendship, embarrass themselves, lift each other up, realize the transformative power of glitter, and weather the identity-defining journey of either acting in the school play or being a techie backstage.
An added bonus of Season 2 is the opportunity to more deeply explore another classmate, Gabe (Dylan Gage), who, while not explicitly stated, is navigating sexually confused feelings at a time when he’s being peer-pressured to start dating and kissing girls. It should come as no surprise that this arc is handled with astonishing nuance and subtlety—familiar to anyone who lived through a similar experience in ways they wouldn’t have even known to excavate on their own. (Hi, again. It’s me.)
What makes PEN15 rise above other millennial “takes” is its status as an origin story. It’s not elucidating who we are now, but how we got here. It’s incredibly hard to capture the mindset of that age without coloring experiences with regret or fantasy fulfillment, or filtering them through adulthood’s learned lessons. It captures the feelings as they emerged raw.
None of us would have been capable of writing about what any of that was like when we are at that age. To have it dramatized for us so viscerally—and now, at this turning point in our (millennial) lives—is pretty astonishing.
We were flailing for connection then, just as we are now. We may not be married to Brant and living in a shack with 2,000 babies while driving a limo made of diamonds, as Maya’s MASH results predicted. In fact, even imagining home ownership is the sticking point of the millennial debate. (Did we somehow know then?) But where we ended up is pretty remarkable—and certainly nothing like what we would have expected then.
It may be impossible to understand how we got here [gestures broadly to the brokeass and maligned millennial existence]. And it’s never been in our control. So much has been outside of our control, in fact, that it’s been frustratingly impossible to draw a line from then to now. But now we finally have a human throughline. It’s this show. And it just asked me if I wanted to join the club and wrote “PEN15” on my arm in a Sharpie when I said yes.