Upon watching Hulu’s recent series Pen15 for the first time, I found myself feeling skeptical about its premise. I wasn’t sure whether its 30-something co-writers and co-stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle could actually pull off playing 13-year-old best friends. Watching most of the initial episode, in which the girls navigate the highs and lows of their first day of seventh grade at their new middle school in the year 2000, my gut reaction was that maybe this breed of humor was just not for me. As someone who cringed during the 2001 hit Not Another Teen Movie, and who has never clicked with Broad City (shocking, I know), I figured for whatever reason, it was me, not them.
Then, a few days later, I stumbled upon an interview the co-stars did with Bustle in which Anna described how she’d drawn from her personal life to portray the experience of watching the relationship of her character’s parents crumble. In the interview, she mentioned how alienating it felt since people in her town didn’t often get divorced. As my parents’ relationship also collapsed while I was a teenager, I decided to give the show another chance, especially since I felt alienated from the Jewish community around me in which divorce was uncommon and not spoken much about.
Within the first few minutes of my second viewing, I noticed several things I hadn’t paid much attention to before: the clear Conair landline telephone Anna uses to call Maya on the eve of their first day of school (an item I still own today) while Mandy Moore’s hit “Candy” plays in the background; the collage of attractive male actors Maya cuts and pastes to her trapper keeper; the dial-up internet sound that interrupts their phone call as Maya’s older brother logs onto AOL. I smiled as the opening credits showed a string of photos from the actors’ real lives — funny and nostalgic teen moments that served as inspiration for their new show. In that moment, I decided I was ready to fully embrace Pen15 and see how it might spark some memories of my own teenage years.
It is in the third episode, we begin to see the realities of Anna’s parents’ tumultuous relationship as she overhears them fighting downstairs while trying to do homework in her bedroom. She rolls her eyes and closes her book, putting on her Discman and singing along to an ethereal song, trying to tune out her mom and dad’s shouting voices. Watching this simple and short scene, I felt a wave of emotion come over me, recalling many moments from my own adolescent years when my parents’ fighting made me feel confused, upset, and angry.
Then, in the next episode, Anna again overhears her parents’ conversation from her bedroom. But when she goes down the steps to spy on them and see what it’s all about, she realizes they’re not fighting but engaging in a loving moment. The inquisitive look on her face turns to a smile, inspiring her to break out in a song about love and family.
Like Anna, I myself was a voyeur, watching the highs and lows of my parents’ stormy relationship. While I don’t remember my parents embracing each other much while I was growing up, this particular scene brought to mind one memory in particular, when my father returned home from a business trip to California in the immediate wake of the September 11th attacks. My mother kissed him on the cheek — the only sign of physical intimacy that I ever recall witnessing.
Later in that same episode, while Anna’s parents initially attend her music concert together, which seems to make her happy, her mom unexpectedly leaves early. Following the event, Anna’s dad explains, “You know her, she was in a mood.”
“Yeah,” Anna expresses in a detached tone, holding her arm and pretending not to care. Watching that moment, I remembered a school Hanukkah party in which I dropped and broke the family camera, causing my parents to get angry and fight.
Throughout the show, Anna watches as her parents’ problems become more prominent, in which both small and big things, such as Chinese takeout and handling Anna’s bad behavior at school, spark an abundance of bickering, making her feel even more alone and uncomfortable. Similarly, there were many times my own parents couldn’t agree on how to best approach certain incidents, causing them to grow more disconnected, making me feel more upset.
Yet similarly to Anna, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing how I felt about it with anyone.
In Episode 9, Anna’s parents decide to go away on a retreat. “What is this retreat for?” Anna asks. “Well it’s because your dad and I haven’t been getting along but you probably weren’t aware of that,” her mother replies.
“Yeah, she knows, Cathy, because we’re fighting right now,” says her dad. Anna puts her head down, asking if this will help them get along better, and then sarcastically says she hopes it works out so she doesn’t see her dad sleeping on the couch anymore. Though the circumstances were very different, in that moment I remembered a time when my dad and I surprised my mom with a trip for one of her birthdays — and the palpable, unspoken awkwardness I felt about their relationship throughout the experience.
Toward the end of that episode, Anna’s parents arrive home from their trip and have decided that things just aren’t working anymore, telling their daughter that they’ve decided to get a divorce. She tries to hold back her true feelings but ultimately sobs as they hold and console her. That scene brought genuine tears to my eyes, as the camera pans from her mother playing with her wedding ring to the family photos that were hanging up in Anna’s room.
While I myself never had that kind of “talk” with both of my parents — my dad left home the summer before my senior year of high school to take care of my grandfather in Ohio and decided to stay out there permanently — I found it emotional to witness such a deeply personal moment. For me, it brought to mind the complexities of familial relationships and the ways our parents’ bond can be so separate yet so heavily intertwined within a family’s dynamic.
As I watched these scenarios unfold before me and was reminded of comparable moments in my own family’s separation, I found it both difficult and cathartic to confront all these memories now. While my family was once fairly involved in our synagogue and local Jewish community, during the years in which my parents’ relationship ended, it was uncomfortable to show up in the same spaces with just one parent and see the looks on people’s faces. Beyond this, even within our larger family, I lost touch with a lot of relatives on both sides, and only in the last few years have I begun to really repair the relationships that once fell to the wayside.
But more than this, when I was a teenager, divorce was still fairly uncommon, particularly in Jewish circles. Had a show like this existed during my younger years, I believe I would not have felt so alone. It’s interesting to consider that if divorce had been more normalized then, maybe my parents would’ve spoken with me sooner so I wasn’t left in the dark for so long.
From wearing cargo pants and friendship necklaces to snacking on Gushers and Cheetos and grinding with boys at the school dance, I ended up loving every moment and minute detail of Pen15. Though it succeeds in capturing many of the laughable experiences and complicated emotions I felt when going through puberty in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it reminded me that many of those emotions are ones I am still learning to navigate today. Immediately upon finishing the series, I turned on the show’s Spotify playlist, which brought to mind even more memories I was grateful to remember once again.