Middle school is the apex of discomfort. It is three years of magnified displeasure and embarrassment, most of which are psychologically repressed and buried deep within our psyche — which makes it all the more baffling that someone would not only suggest to revisit it, but also magnify how uncomfortable it is. Whatever their reasoning, they managed to convince a few other unfortunate souls. The terrifying, disturbing and depressing result is “PEN15.”
The show follows two friends, Maya (Maya Erskine, “Betas”) and Anna (Anna Konkle, “Rosewood”), as they start the seventh grade together. The catch? Maya and Anna are played by adults, while the rest of the cast are acutal children (because that won’t make anyone uncomfortable, right?). The premiere, “First Day,” shows their disastrous first day. The school lockers are plastered with “Dustin hearts Maya” and “Brandt hearts Maya” written on notebook paper. While Maya is at first lured into believing these boys “like-like” her, she is duped by the wicked popular kids, who christen her that year’s UGIS — the Ugliest Girl In School. In the end, she challenges Brandt (Jonah Beres, “Strange Nature”) to a trash-talking competition, where she almost stands up for herself. In the end, she claims his uncircumcised penis is the reason why his dad died. Yikes.
For a comedy about the struggle of navigating pubescent politics, “PEN15” cannot even muster a chuckle. Most of the jokes operate off of Erskine and Konkle’s air-headed characters. However, their acting is so insufferable — their voices so irritating — that all the jokes land closer to the side of pity than humor. It really is embarrassing to watch these two suspiciously youthful-looking women attempt to imitate middle schoolers. Their classmates — who are all played by children — are just as bad at acting. At least they have an excuse.
Which brings me to the dynamic Erskine and Konkle share with their co-stars. One stereotype of middle school the show nails is the flirting and note-passing occuring between children who are beginning to understand their sexualities. “PEN15” does not shy away from incorporating the strange way children attempt to interact with one another. But, adult actors in their 30s flirting with child actors is simply unpleasant. As child-like as Erskine and Konkle might seem, they still visibly look like adults, braces or not.
For as much as the show lacks direction or humor, it also lacks conscience. The aforementioned scene wherein Maya says that Brandt’s uncircumcised penis is the reason why his dad died stands out for how uncomfortably shocking it was. Even worse, Maya suffers absolutely zero consequences for this. Brandt cries. Maya runs away. Then the next night, when Maya asks Anna if she was being too harsh, Anna asserts that no, she was not. Instead, Maya gets to erase her name off the UGIS list in the boys bathroom for a triumphant win.
If there’s anything “PEN15” does well, it’s capture the atmosphere of middle school. The awkward clothing choices, the uncertainty about bras, passing notes and the strange way tweens and pre-teens talk to each other are all expertly captured here. Even the soundtrack is full of 2000s alt-classics. But “PEN15” also emulates the reason we’d like to forget middle school ever existed. The show is uncomfortable, disturbing and unsettling. The two lead actresses are so almost like middle schoolers — and yet so far — that it errs too close into the territory of the uncanny valley. If it was at least funny, there might be something to spare. But it isn’t. Instead, “PEN15” belongs in the land of psychologically repressed memories, never to resurface.