In the tradition of Laverne and Shirley, of Abbi and Ilana, of Beavis and Butt-head, Maya and Anna—the pair of thirteen-year-olds at the racing heart of “PEN15” (Hulu)—are a duo allied against the rude truths of a tough universe. The characters borrow their names from the actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who, with Sam Zvibleman, created “PEN15”; the show’s view of maladroit pubescence—its texture of tender recollection and mortified confession—brings an aroma of memoir to the action. We might see the pair as a pop American analogue to Lenù and Lila, of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And because their system of mutual support involves orderly Anna and chaotic Maya encouraging one other toward delusions—about the suitability of Maya’s bowl haircut, for instance, and about the likelihood that she has discovered, in a few minutes of chatting on AOL Instant Messenger, her one true love—they also recall the young ladies from Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” A folie à deux is a forgivable response to the rigors of middle school.

The characters, Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, enter seventh grade in the year 2000. The show pays faithful attention to millennial period detail (modems hogging the landlines) while leaving its geographical setting strategically nonspecific: these two Everygirls are citizens of Anytown, U.S.A., and face the eternal struggles of adolescence as if laboring through a parable.

The lead actors are about twenty years older than their characters and their juvenile co-stars. The cleverness of this concept is immediately evident, and the device supplies a giddy surreality—the mood of a stress dream. Anna’s relatively tall stature embellishes the awkwardness of a gawky girl looming over a compactly oafish boy at a school dance. Soon, though, the concept fades into the fabric of the show. The kids are cast and directed with an eye for understatement—this show’s clutch of mean girls are realistically passive-aggressive and merely pretty, not the venomous glamazons familiar from other shows—and the adults’ performances are so committed as to erase the sense of difference. With the precise physicality of their hallway trudges and great shades of meaning in their many outbursts of “Oh, my God!,” the leads balance glorious caricature and subtle evocation.

Maya Erskine is a special revelation. She plays a thirteen-year-old as if averaging a portrayal of a bold toddler and a tipsy twentysomething. The character’s bravado is most ferocious when it is least warranted: interloping among her older brother’s friends as they smoke pot from an apple, she asks to hit the pipe, chomps a juicy mouthful from it, and spikes it like a football she has sprinted into the end zone.

The title of “PEN15” implies a level of youthful lust and immature banter to which the show lives up about a third of the time. The episode tracing Maya’s discovery of onanism is superb for conjuring the first stirrings of horniness with both gross humor and fine sensitivity. The depictions of make-out sessions, with actors seeming to osculate the lens, offer a clinical perspective. As a teen sex comedy, it seems far more emotionally honest—and, therefore, more appropriate for actual teens—than “Sex Education,” the Netflix series about a self-styled teen-aged therapist treating an encyclopedia of dysfunction with a glossary of pop-psych bromides. Where “Sex Education” offers a lot of easy answers to the embarrassments of puberty, “PEN15” loiters amid its difficult mysteries and discovers an embarrassment of riches.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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