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Review: Never mind the joke title, 'PEN15' may be the year's best new show

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The juvenile joke of the title and the oddness of its casting notwithstanding, Hulu's "PEN15," in which grown-up actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as 13-year-old middle-schoolers amid an otherwise age-accurate cast, is as deep and real a comedy as you will see in a year already great for television comedy. Nothing more thoroughly conceived, delicately acted or emotionally true will be coming your way, sitcom or drama or in between.

Set in 2000 and co-created by Erskine and Konkle with Sam Zvibleman (who directed about half the episodes of the Cameron Espositio-Rhea Butcher sitcom "Take My Wife"), it's a love story between two best friends. The intensity of their friendship means that they will be breaking up and making up across the 10-episode season, which begins streaming Friday.

The challenges of a new school, more rapidly maturing or superficially sophisticated classmates, the casual cruelty that disguises itself as helpful advice and all the cultural and personal business that might make a young person doubt herself and her worth to the world add to the pressure.

The fact that Maya and Anna (Mai and 'Na to each other) have sworn to experience everything new together, and sulk -- grieve -- when they don't, does not make things easier. (One feels they might grow up to be Abbi and Ilana of "Broad City.")

As seventh grade begins, they still talk of "playing"; Maya heads off for her first day in a Care Bears sweatshirt. They have a regular Friday date with their Sylvanian Family of woodland creatures, whom they give their own spin on adulthood, in Southern accents. (Hedgehog: "Jonathan, where have you been?" Koala: "Bethany, I have to talk to you." Hedgehog: "I asked you to come meet me because I got you a milkshake and now it is warm." Koala: "I told you, Beth, no more milkshakes. ... I can't do this anymore, I have a wife and kids at home.")

Like Louis Anderson's turn as mother Christine Baskets in "Baskets," or Julie Harris in her 20s playing a 12-year-old girl in "Member of the Wedding," the casting of Konkle and Erskine is not a stunt or gag, but a choice (albeit one baked into the project by the creator-stars), and one you are meant to briefly acknowledge and (mostly) forget. And you will, not least because the actresses physically fit the part, and are very good at what they do.

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To the extent you do remain aware that Konkle and Erskine are grown women, it only makes their outsider characters seem a little more outside. And like Nick Kroll's hormonal coming-of-age cartoon "Big Mouth," it lets them get away with material that might be considered controversial or even actionable -- or just not as funny, or as powerful -- were it performed by an actual child. (The end credits note that adult body doubles were used for some scenes.) A scene in which Maya examines her Japanese features in a mirror has a complicated gravity that a real kid might have approximated, but not so fully embodied. (Konkle and Erskine, and the adults who play adults, do all the emotional heavy lifting.)

It also makes more explicit what is true of every middle-school comedy you have ever seen: that it is the work of adults, looking back with the benefit of subsequent experience and (maybe) wisdom and, perhaps too often, with nostalgia. Because Konkle and Erskine actually embody their characters' far future, scenes play with added authenticity, and poignancy -- though without sentiment -- and keep the characters likable even through their fits and tantrums. It feels personal.

There are some long arcs through the season, involving their various crushes, the inevitable tribe of popular girls and the marriage of Anna's parents, which is troubled; one feels the accrued weight of the series in the season's end. An unsmoked cigarette makes its way through the episodes. Even so, more than many shows today, it is episodic, running on classic sitcom tropes -- the lie that brings trouble, the backfiring good deed -- with an idea developed and done with in half an hour. Despite the preadolescent air of crisis that prevails over matters small and large, most things are the same at the beginning of one episode as at the end of the last.

Television is full of high school stories, full of kids just a few years older than this leading essentially adult lives, but nothing much untoward really happens here (depending, I suppose, about how you feel about compulsive masturbation) outside of the normal horrors and betrayals children visit upon one another in the process of working out who they are. (That adults continue to engage in these behaviors makes the action more than a look back; anyone can relate.) Everyone gets to say bad words, except the characters who never would.

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