Anyone who has ever been through middle school knows the first rule of getting out of middle school is YOU DON’T GO BACK TO MIDDLE SCHOOL. Like… ever.

So, when I heard about this Hulu show called “PEN15” where two adult women recreate their lives in middle school, I was both shocked and (honestly) terrified. Who are these traitors to the universal rule of middle school? Why would anyone in their right mind do that? And why would we ever want to watch it?

Turns out, people in their right minds want to watch it because it’s hilarious, entertaining, heartbreaking, and cathartic. I could show this series to my therapist and skip an entire year of “this is why I am the way I am” backstory explanation.

Some Things Don’t Change

“PEN15” is set in the year 2000. That’s approximately ten years after I went to middle school. It’s approximately 15 years before my daughter went to middle school. Yet every single thing they’re dealing with is something both of us could relate to.

Yes. You will get a version of the cliche “a very special episode” where one of the characters gets her first period. You will see them making a big deal of smoking a cigarette, which, honestly, wasn’t even that big of deal when *I* was in middle school. You’ll see all the trope middle school issues: mean girls, body images, first kisses, and parents who just don’t understand.

What makes this different from every other awkward-years-show out there is that these are two adults who are re-enacting their actual lives – rather kid actors acting off scripts. This is a love-letter, a screaming rage fit, and a shamed confession to everything that was seventh grade. You’re not just watching their mortification, their squeals of joy, their tears of embarrassment, their loss of emotional control … you’re reliving it with them because they are so on-the-nose with what it was actually like.

Awkward? Can Confirm.

I have a literal physical reaction to this show. The amount of awkwardness in this show makes my teeth hurt. I actually cringe at least once per episode. I’m not a person who screams “Look behind you!” in a horror movie, but I have 100% shouted at my TV that Maya needs to “STOP!” and “DO NOT DO THAT!” while covering my face with a pillow.

If you get emotionally invested with characters in tv shows, then fair warning: If “This is Us” makes you have the feels, this show will take that to a whole new level. Season 1, episode 9 of “PEN15” is all “hold my beer” to the nonsense that “This is Us” tries to pass off as real life.  That one half-hour was a consolidated exercise in bipolar, roller-coaster, all-over-the-map reactions, where I laughed, then I cried. I covered my face with a pillow. Then I laughed, then I cried again, then I threw my pillow at the television. Don’t get me wrong, “This is Us” has the heart-tugs. “PEN15” has the brain tugs though. And that’s way more powerful.

But I come out of each episode feeling better. It’s TV therapy. I’m watching the girls in the show (so very realistically that it’s kind of like watching myself) go through some seriously awful crap. Yet, they come out of it okay. In typical sit-com form, by the next episode, all is forgotten and forgiven. Or they’re acknowledging and dealing with it.

And for some weird reason this has helped me, because seeing it play out this way means somehow, someplace, my subconscious let’s go of all those horrible, terrible, no-good, very-bad moments from middle school that I can’t stop reliving in the wee hours of the night.

If Maya and Anna have already moved past that embarrassing endeavor in the janitor’s closet, then I can finally move past that thing that happened behind the gym when I was 12 that still haunts my brain at 3 am. Brandt doesn’t think twice about what happened in the closet. Maybe it’s time for me to acknowledge that the boy from the behind the gym (what was his name?) probably hasn’t thought about that incident for 30 years and I can FINALLY let it go.

Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

More than just a collection of every horrible middle school memory, this show is absolutely one of the most honest views of the period of time when girls become women I’ve ever seen. It perfectly captures that balance beam women walk when they hit puberty against their will. The changing relationships with parents, the nothing-is-more-important-than-my-best-friend-mentality, the precocious feeling of still wanting to play with toys even though you might technically be too old, every single one of the “OMGs!”, and how ginormous tampons appear to an average 12-year-old.

And although it’s primarily focused on the girls, they do a great job acknowledging boys don’t have it easy during this period of time either.

In one very profound, yet exceptionally understated scene, Maya and Anna walk into 7th grade and the camera catches the rest of the student body. Unlike most movies and TV shows, where every middle school student is portrayed by a charismatic, decent looking 25-year-old and everyone is the same height and has the same bra size and amount of chest hair, this scene really captured what middle school was like. 

The camera pans across kids in clusters: boys and girls who run the gambit from those who clearly still cuddle with teddy bears to those who are clearly cuddling heady beers—and not getting carded for doing so. Yup, that was about right for middle school.

The boys in “PEN15” are mostly jerks, but, let’s be honest: in 7th grade, boys are mostly jerks. However, you do get a little insight into the middle-school male psyche, and although Maya and Anna don’t really get it as they live through the moment, for those of us watching our lives in retrospect, it’s truly enlightening. Wait, boys had self-confidence issues? Boys felt insecure when their peers had developed before them? That jerky behavior stemmed from insecurity about how to treat girls cause all they know is raging hormones, pornos, and what their friends tell them? Ohhhhh. It all makes sense now.

I fully realize this review isn’t going to sell the show on everyone. Some people just want to be entertained. They don’t want to relive their worst years, even if it is cathartic. My husband gets so tense watching awkward things on television that he is in actual pain when it’s over. He will never watch “PEN15.”

But? If you want more than contrived bland TV moments written to appeal to the same part of your brain that cries at the Humane Shelter commercials, and if you want a really honest and realistic view of what being a girl is like no matter what your age or the time period is, I strongly recommend you (and your daughters, if not also your husbands and sons) give “PEN15” a try.

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About Lily Winters

A full-time copywriter, Lilly Winters lives outside Washington, D.C. in a house full of animals—which include her husband and teenager. Under a different name, she’s written a book of short stories, a Young Adult novel, and was most recently published in Gravity Dancers. Lilly Winters isn’t posting her real picture because it’s possible she is currently wanted by the Mexican drug cartel. It’s also possible she watches too much Ozark.

View all posts by Lily Winters