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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that PEN15 is about two teen girls growing up in the year 2000. It's the raunchy but relatable brainchild of its stars, Maya Erskine (Casual) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood). Both 31 in real life, Erskine and Konkle play fictionalized versions of themselves at 13, alongside a cast of actual middle-school-aged kids. The series offers a hilarious, often poignant look at female adolescence in a very real, warts-and-all way. Teen characters experiment with alcohol and cigarettes, and one girl inhales computer-cleaning fluid and appears to faint. A character has her first kiss (it's definitely worth noting that the show swaps out kid actors for adults during these scenes, which is made very obvious) and there's lots of talk about bodies and sex, with giggling references to masturbation and various sex acts. One episode centers on a character's fervent, curious exploration of her own body, weird smells and fluids and all. Classmates catch a very brief glimpse of a woman's bare breasts on a scrambled cable TV station, and another episode shows kids getting together to watch the trashy erotic thriller Wild Things. While physical violence isn't really an issue, there is bullying, sometimes of a racial nature.
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What's the story?
PEN15 transports us back to the year 2000, where BFFs Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) are determined to experience all their 7th Grade firsts together: from their first sips of beer to their first kisses. Though the duo isn't part of the cool crowd -- one is, in fact, voted the "Ugliest Girl in School" -- this doesn't keep them crushing on dudes in AIM chat rooms, experimenting with cigarettes on the sly, and strutting down the halls in a stolen thong in an attempt to feel grown-up and sexy. Their home lives are no picnic, either. Maya deals with feelings of inadequacy around her jazz drummer dad, and shame about masturbating when her traditionalist Japanese mom mentions that their ancestors are "always watching". Anna is a romantic at heart who struggles to maintain her positive attitude when she's around her continually bickering parents, who are clearly on the brink of divorce but putting up a facade that's fooling no one. The pair leans on one another throughout these trials and tribulations, but their own friendship is tested as well.
Is it any good?
The pop culture landscape has been rife with representations of burgeoning male sexuality for ages, but until very recently, unflinching portrayals of female adolescence have been harder to come by. PEN15 is a long-overdue exploration of the struggles faced by middle school girls and does so in a way that feels relatable and real while also being side-splittingly funny. It doesn't take long to forget that the main stars are, in fact, 31-year-old women, so committed are they to the bit. Both are naturally gifted comedians, who are laugh-out-loud funny when embodying the idea that middle school is hell, every crush or conflict catastrophically important.
Yet they also ably sell the more nuanced and sincere aspects of the show, most notably during the episodes exploring Anna's parents and their marital issues, and the storyline where Maya's brother Shuji helps her address the casual cruelty of her racist classmates, who mock her for being half-Japanese. Some viewers may write the series off due to the raunchy humor, and that would be their loss. PEN15 perfectly illustrates all the goofiness and pain inherent in being a young girl fumbling toward adulthood, in that ambiguous and awkward stage between Calico Critters and Kotex maxi pads.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why we haven't seen many shows like PEN15 before; shows that explore teen girlhood in a frank, funny, and sometimes downright gross way. While media depictions of teenage boys exploring and adjusting to their weirdly-changing bodies have been around for ages (American Pie, anyone?), it's been far less common to see teen girls figuring things out in the same way. Why might this be?
Did you find the friendship between Maya and Anna believable? In what ways do they support and encourage each other? How about the family dynamics on the show? Could you relate to the way the girls felt about their parents? How about the sibling relationship between Maya and Shuji, which often seems antagonistic? How do you know they really love one another?
What do you think about the fact that the series stars and is written by adult women pretending to be children? How might the show have been different if they hired real 13-year-olds to play Maya and Anna? Does their true age affect how you view the characters in any way?
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