Every Sunday as a child we would go to my grandmother’s house for dinner.
Walking into her house, the specific and comforting smell of her homemade spaghetti and meatballs would be the first to greet us at the door.
Now, on the rare occasion that I encounter this exact smell, I am taken on a brief vacation to my past. It is not a memory, but rather, a sensory experience. I can feel the inexplicably-crunchy, green shag carpet under my bare feet. I can see the pink tile on her bathroom wall, and I can taste her warm, tangy meatballs.
Psychologists say that the sense of smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. If so, watching Pen15 is like the millennial equivalent of sniffing eraser shavings or cotton-candy lip smackers. It is a time machine and you are going back to adolescence, like it or not.
Being an adolescent in the late 90’s or early 2000’s meant coming of age in a much simpler time. A time when a single, isolated incident such as “attending the school play” lands one in a brand new ecosystem of experiences, the discovery of which would be studied and discussed for days, if not weeks to come.
It is a rare thing to witness a series that invites us to imagine the process of its creation. The only way that two women in their 30’s might be able to quite literally morph themselves into 7th-grade versions of themselves is an act of magic, time travel, and raw talent. I knew those girls in middle school. In fact, I was those girls: Popular-adjacent, with a best friend attached to my hip.
Pen15’s creators, Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, manage to perfectly capture the experience of being in 7th grade at this time. This was the exact moment that we found ourselves straddling the gap between childhood and adulthood, and awkwardly navigating our changing world and bodies. A time when we still enjoyed using our imaginations and playing make-believe in the woods, while also calling each other sluts and bitches and discussing who had gotten to third base.
How do they remember the specific posture we had? The classic, self-conscious-about-my-body-but-still-want-to-look-cool, arm-across-my-stomach stance?
And the clothes! There was the classic outfit for girls — flares with a ribbed-detail tank top and butterfly clips. And the boys — a brown, striped polo-esque t-shirt with baggy cargo shorts. Most portray the clothes of this era in a dramatized, modernized, and glamorized way, but Pen15 took the most honest and accurate approach imaginable — giving the show a sense of authenticity that is admirable and so fun to witness.
In one scene, the two main characters and best friends, Anna and Maya, go to the dance. (Keep in mind that the rest of the cast is made up of actual middle school-aged actors.) Rather than choosing dresses or heels, the characters are dressed in the oh-so-accurate green cargo flares, paired with bright blue, one-sleeve tops and sneakers. Classic and true.
This show manages to bring forth dormant emotions inside me that the digital natives of today’s teenage landscape will never know. Like the specific satisfaction of the loud “Welcome!” you hear after finally connecting to America Online. The desperate hope to then hear, “you’ve got mail!” The thrill of seeing your crush online and the literal horror accompanying the abrupt door-shut sound when they sign off without IMing you.
These shared experiences of teenagers in the late ’90s and early 2000s unite us.
How did they even manage to capture the exact sensory feeling of my first kiss in 7th grade? I still wonder what 7th-grade boys were trying to emulate by jabbing their tongue in and out of a girl’s mouth. BUT I FEEL YOU ANNA! Samesies.
The most compelling aspect of this show is how authentically relatable it is. We grew up in an in-between era, right on the cusp of the age of technology, while still playing outside and doing seances to talk to the dead. As the world moved into a new era, we went through puberty. Most of us remember when we first got the internet in our homes and remember a life without cell phones. We remember calling our friends’ land-lines and having to ask their parents if we could please speak to them.
Somehow, Pen15 manages to make relevant and relatable today, a specific moment in time that only a small number of us got to experience. Adolescents of today have had smartphones since they were babies and think ouija boards are lame. They will never know the joy of making the perfect mix CD, writing on it in sharpie, and giving it to your BFF.
Sure, digital natives will have their own memories of being in middle school, and that will unite them forever. After watching Pen15, I feel grateful, and nostalgic, for that small moment in time that united our generation.