Review: Despite a Crowded Field and Stiff Competition, ‘Pen15’ Remains a Standout

The pantheon of media portraying pubescent escapades has been steadily expanding in recent years. Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, Euphoria, Good Boys, Book Smart, Mid-90’s. It’s becoming a booming industry all its own, complete with the tropes we’ve come to expect ever since Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill took us for a ride in 2007’s Superbad. Offbeat, quirky protagonists who manage to avoid all social circles completely. Portrayals of strain in friendships that must stand the test of growing older. Dick jokes. That’s all here too, present and accounted for in Hulu’s new series Pen15. And yet despite these well-worn ideas and tropes, the duo of Maya and Anna make an eloquent case for your attention and refuse to blend into the background of their forebears. 

Nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series, Pen15 offers a refreshing take on the typically male-dominated field of explicit teenage comedy. Never before has there existed a female duo in this genre that is allowed to indulge in such hilarious and risqué scenarios. Too often this end of the spectrum is reserved for the boys, but no more. And that is truly a blessing, because Pen15’s female perspective is so essential to its unique brand of charm.

Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) are very much the fulcrum for this authentic, often surreal story that plays out over ten excellent episodes. Both Erskine and Konkle, who are also credited as writers, creators and producers, shine with a brilliance that so often defies expectations. Do they possess all of the same traits that so many other hormonal big screen duos have shared in the past? Absolutely. But this never prevents a fresh and cinematic insight from blooming over the course of the series, which does a fantastic job of capitalizing on the strengths of television. 

Credit: Hulu

An episodic format allows greater depth and breadth of topics than would typically be manageable in film. This results in deeper, more well-rounded characters, and allows Pen15 to avoid the typical pitfalls that often plague its colleagues. There is no need for the lavish, over-the-top house parties that threaten suspension of disbelief on the grounds of their sheer absurdity, nor does it need to delve into the shock theater of hard drugs, violence and sexual abuse to keep you engaged in the story it’s trying to tell (I’m looking at you, Euphoria.)

None of this is to say that Pen15 is neutered or tame. Absurdity abounds. Maya is haunted by the image of her dead ojichan, a projection of her shame around masturbation. A video project for school involving the Spice Girls results in Anna partaking in a hunger strike against racism. In one of my favorite scenes, a thong stolen from a classmate is examined by an eager Maya at home and in the process is transformed into an object of reverence, a sort of gateway to femininity that Maya washes with monastic patience, complete with swelling orchestral music and painfully golden lightning. It is both beautiful, uncomfortable and undeniably unique, and it’s but one example of the vast amount of creativity that has been poured into this program.

Credit: Hulu

The cinematography is perhaps one of the best examples of this creativity in action. Through diligent and creative framing the show escapes the trappings of purely verbal comedy and employs a greater variety of comedic tools. Visual comedy is equally present, creating a balance that is at times beautiful and at others unbelievably uncomfortable by way of painfully accurate nostalgia. Everyday items are turned into objects of reverence and potent symbols of transformation, such as the aforementioned pair of panties, a stray cigarette retrieved from a bathroom stall or a carefully wadded note that’s been passed through several classmates. Pen15 is certainly unafraid of taking creative liberties and infusing new life into otherwise tired scenes, leaving them feeling new and interesting. Characters float, ghosts appear, and intricate, dream-like sequences of dance-offs and fantasies shine through an impressive level audio and visual polish.

Pen15 also perfects the art of recreating that quintessential look and feel of the early 2000’s. Girls and boys gather in a dark basement to sneakily watch a copy of 1998’s Wild Things, complete with its chunky plastic box from Blockbuster. An episode devoted almost entirely to the nuances of AOL Instant Messenger is packed with enough auditory familiarity to send even the staunchest among us reeling backwards towards the past. If you’re willing to come along for the ride I guarantee you’ll be transported too, back to when landlines and Ask Jeeves freshly-burnt CD’s provided the perfect stage upon which to perform this latest iteration of the teenage duo comedy. Pen15 has a long family tree, and it will certainly not be the last of its kind. But it will stand as an example of mastery of the form, an inspiring testament to both the horrors and joys of adolescence and the power that they can maintain over each of us.

Review: ‘Years and Years’ Deals in Beautiful Discomfort

It feels like every day is more saturated than the last with tragedies. The sensation is not unlike that of whiplash, a physical failure of the body and mind to adequately keep pace with the sheer barrage of information that is spewed on to the world stage with alarming frequency. Daniel Tovy’s character Danny in the new HBO limited series Years and Years scrapes at this very raw nerve of mine rather quickly, with a manic monologue delivered just minutes into the first episode at the birthing of his niece: “But now? I worry about everything. I don’t know what to worry about first.”

Years and Years Cast HBO
Matt Squire/HBO

Starting off in the year 2019, Years and Years capitalizes on that sense of feeling helplessly overwhelmed by the world. Breakneck is perhaps too mild a descriptor for the story that plays out over just six episodes. Five years transpire in a blistering montage in the first episode, with each consecutive episode involving smaller jumps forward. In total we see a decade of time played out over the course of the series. It centers around the Lyons family, a lively and mostly lovable cast of characters who serve as our grounding point over the course of this ten-year tale. Through their individual journeys we see the toll that this alternate future takes upon each of them as a microcosm within greater waves of increasing turmoil. We witness their joys contrasted against the unrelenting collapse of the world around them. The family must contend with vulgar shock politics, rising nuclear tensions, a Ukranian refugee crisis and uncomfortably pertinent technological developments. And that’s all just in episode one.

Here I must admit to a certain sense of masochism: you have to be comfortable with a certain level of feeling uncomfortable. In the time I spent viewing Years and Years there were numerous occasions where my girlfriend would catch a scene and throw her hands up in discomfort, not from the quality of the show itself but from the uncanny chill that the plot often invokes in the viewer. You are never far from the fact that no part of the history invented by Years and Years feels implausible. Quite the opposite is true: at all times, the series feels far too close to reality. There is certainly a dark sort of thrill to bearing witness to this, but it’s much more than that. It is a warning, barely dressed at times. Some may find this distasteful, unpleasant, perhaps unviable as a method of escapism due to its cunning similarities to everyday life. But it is hard to deny its pertinence, even its importance to those with the courage to listen.

That isn’t to say that Years and Years is a tragedy. Indeed it is a triumph, the persistence of these characters in the face of so much adversity. Most every character goes through an arc that feels satisfying and cathartic, and despite the onslaught of dismay the Lyons family continues to charm throughout, taking happiness where they can find it. It is these moments of tenderness, from drunken family barbecues to moments of sibling camaraderie, that provide the necessary balance. Performances by Rory Kinnear, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley and Russell Tovey all wonderfully portray a set of four beleaguered siblings who are doing their best to find hope in a world that too often feels hopeless. Years and Years is also a story about generational gaps, and we see this most clearly in the relationships between the four central siblings and both their grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) and their own children. Lydia West easily gives the strongest performance of this younger generation as the quiet, wickedly intelligent Bethany. Credit is also due to series writer Russell T. Davies, who crafted a story with just the right blend of real world detail and inventive futurism. He absolutely nailed the tone in a way that lends this story its incredible levels of realism and depth.


If all of this sounds like a lot to be handled over the course of only six episodes, it is. Years and Years is ambitious in the scope of the orchestra that it conducts, with all of the separate threads eventually weaving into an immensely satisfying conclusion. This ambition does come at a cost, as certain characters get left by the wayside and some threads feel less balanced than others. This slight unsteadiness never threatens to sink the ship, however, and the arc of the plot feels largely satisfying. One certainly has to respect the sheer economy of storytelling at play here, for there is very little wasted space. The show does a great job of carving the maximum amount of impact out of its relatively short span. It can be hectic and messy and overstuffed, at times a bit too much. I would argue that anyone uncomfortable with these concepts has probably selected the wrong planet to inhabit.