It took me a little while to fully accept the fact that Maya and Anna, the two seventh-grade girls at the center of the weirdly wonderful “PEN15,” are played by 31-year-old adults. With Maya’s sad bowl cut and Anna’s mouthful of silver braces, they pass as minors.
That’s one key to the charm of the new Hulu comedy, which is set in 2000; it isn’t mocking the girls’ socially traumatic entrance into teenhood, like those “Saturday Night Live” sketches where cast members play kids by exaggerating their childish tics. Actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who created the show with Sam Zvibleman, fully commit to their portrayals, never putting quotes around them or winking at us. The show is produced by Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island trio, but it contains none of their trademark sendups and spoofery. Erskine and Konkle seem to submerge themselves in the unadulterated horror as well as the innocent joy of the awkward years — each time Anna accidentally catches glimpses of her parents’ failing marriage, or Maya’s happy discovery, in episode three, of masturbation.
All of the other kids in Maya and Anna’s middle school are played by real kids, which makes the pair’s acting feat even more impressive. They pass as 13-year-olds even amid a cohort of the real thing. Only occasionally, as Maya and Anna talk on the phone about their crushes, or play with the dolls they are quickly outgrowing, did I sense the age difference, as I detected a fine layer of compassionate retrospect by Erskine and Konkle (who, by the way, grew up in Scituate). The adult actresses understand the preciousness of the friendship between these geeky girls, who cheer each other on despite a world of teen woe ready to break their hearts.
Another charm of “PEN15” (named after a juvenile trick that involves getting someone to write “pen15” on their hand without realizing it looks like “penis”) is that it’s set in what now appears to be a simpler time. In the year 2000, before 9/11 had its generalized chilling effect, the Internet was not yet the lethal tool for teens that it is now. The kids in “PEN15” can be quite cruel, of course; social media didn’t invent adolescent brutality so much as amplify it. Sweet Maya learns that she has been named “UGIS,” which stands for Ugliest Girl in School, and your heart breaks for her. But she’s also able to block it out more easily. In one scene, Maya and Anna’s gabfest is rudely interrupted by a grating squealing sound; it’s Maya’s brother trying to get online. “Freaks and Geeks” benefited similarly from its period setting of the early 1980s, which brought tinges of nostalgia and humor to the portrait of youth.
“PEN15,” which, according to Hulu, is pronounced “Pen Fifteen,” arrives close to a similarly teen-centric Netflix series called “Sex Education.” The shows are quite different in most ways — the kids are a tad older on “Sex Education,” while “PEN15” is proudly specific about delving into the process of puberty; the episodes of “Sex Education” are an hour long, “PEN15” a half-hour; and, most important of all, “Sex Education” bounces between boys and girls, while “PEN15” maintains a female perspective. But the comparison brings out one of the flaws of “PEN15,” as it stretches across the 10-episode season, available on Friday. The show doesn’t have the kind of narrative momentum that pushes you to find out what happens in the next episode. There are countless moments of insight and comedy in the episodes, but they aren’t linked up dynamically.
That said, the friendship between Maya and Anna offers a series of ups and downs that, while not particularly twisty, satisfy. They want to grow together, but, as in any long relationship, they have to navigate their differences, too. Like so much about “PEN15,” their friendship is as authentic as it is dear.
Starring: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Taylor Nichols, Melora Walters, Taj Cross, Lincoln Jolly
On: Hulu, first season available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.