Interview: The stars of PEN15 on their hit traumedy series
Set in middle school as it really happened in the year 2000, PEN15 sees thirty-something creator-writer-producers Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine playing versions of themselves as 13-year-old outcasts… surrounded by actual 13-year-olds playing their peers.
Season 2 is an even bigger hit than its Emmy-nominated first season, with a 93% rating on Metacritic, where it’s the best reviewed fictional TV show of 2020. Season 2 also has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s #2 on their list of the best TV shows of 2020.
As The Washington Post put it, “If one has to choose only one millennial-made TV series that ventures into adolescent angst in the AOL era, please make it this one. PEN15… could be almost considered an act of communal therapy. In their unflinching and even brave willingness to re-enact the range of hair-trigger emotions that turn teenagers into the worst kind of people, Erskine and Konkle (along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman) are offering a kind of catharsis to the rest of us: Yes, you were as awful as you remember being, but guess what? You were in the throes of becoming you. PEN15 is both an exquisite wallow in hormonal chaos and a belated act of forgiveness.”
To have anyone relate to these stories is a gift to us. Things we felt so ashamed about became things we could feel proud of through our art, which blew our minds. – Maya Erskine
We caught up with the grown-up “tween” stars to talk vulnerability, turning shame into art, and confusion at their first hint of fame.
PEN15 is such a unique take on adolescence, and like nothing else on television. How did you come up with the idea for the two of you as adults to play teenage characters among other young actors?
MAYA: It started with us knowing we wanted to play outcasts because we think of ourselves as outcasts. We came up with this convoluted idea where we escape a cult and hide in a foster family and go to middle school. We asked our friend Sam [Zvibleman] to write it with us. And he asked why can’t you guys just be in middle school? That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. We wanted the show to be an uncensored and R-rated retelling of middle school, of our memories of middle school. And to do that, we knew we had to have adults play out those R-rated moments. What we found was that by having us play this age, the audience could feel safe to laugh at some of the traumatic embarrassing moments. As opposed to it being a kid who could potentially be going through those moments – that would be a lot harder to watch.
The show has been critically acclaimed, with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing and a devout following. How have you reacted to the success of PEN15?
MAYA: I shot a video of Anna’s reaction the night the show came out. We had maybe two followers on Instagram at the time and we started getting messages. We were on the floor freaking out.
ANNA: We were in a deep shock and state of confusion. We’re just so used to being the underdogs, struggling.
MAYA: It’s very scary revealing your diary to strangers. Putting out the masturbation stuff [from Season 1], we didn’t really think about it. To us at the time of writing it and filming it, it was just work. But once it was out there, we became vulnerable – what if they hate it and hate us? To have anyone relate to these stories is a gift to us. Things we felt so ashamed about became things we could feel proud of through our art, which blew our minds.
The story of rejection is in all of us and it’s healing to know others feel the same, like Anna and Maya. – Anna Konkle
In Season 1, we see the characters go through major adolescent milestones like their first kiss and getting their periods. What life moments do you plan to explore in Season 2?
MAYA: We don’t really go through major “firsts” like we did in Season 1. It picks up right after the dance [in the last episode of Season 1] where a single event jumpstarts this whole chain reaction affecting Maya’s and Anna’s identities. Season 1 was the beginning of adolescence, leaning more towards childhood. This season, they are right in the middle of tween-hood, that intense transition where you’re not quite a kid but you’re also not a teen. They try on many different identities as a means to escape their own identities… like witchery and wrestling.
ANNA: In the first season, [the characters] have a goal of getting their first kiss, first boyfriend. In the new season, there will be some more subtle things like “micro-firsts.” Like Anna’s parents’ situation is changing, experiencing the darker side of adolescence.
MAYA: “Micro-firsts” in terms of like seeing your parents argue in front of your friends.
Why do you think PEN15 resonates so well with audiences worldwide?
ANNA: Maybe with all the Instagram filters and pressure to be perfect, there’s a subconscious craving to see flaws flaunted. PEN15 is purposely filterless. The story of rejection is in all of us and it’s healing to know others feel the same, like Anna and Maya. We try to celebrate the reject, laugh at it, look at it up close instead of push it away. It’s also showing subjects we are taught to keep secret as girls and women. So I hope all that resonates. And we hope it’s simultaneously an escape where people can occasionally belly laugh.