Looking at the trailer for PEN15, you might think the show is another one of TV's attempts to pass off nostalgia as content or that a one-note sight gag of two grown women playing 13-year-olds is all the show has to offer. True, watching creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle mix with actual teens never gets old, and gel pens are the kind of "only '90s kids will understand..." material that networks are desperate for, but beyond these easy selling points is the real reason to watch: It's a poignant story of friendship, because PEN15's Maya and Anna were the best BFFs (BBFFs) on television this season.
Set in the year 2000, PEN15 is an eerily authentic comedy about stepping into the social nightmare that is middle school for the first time. Thirtysomethings Erskine and Konkle play teens Maya and Anna, respectively, best friends and stand-ins for their actual selves in the throes of awkwardness as they try to grow up too fast. Though they have problems with popular kids, crushes, and family problems, they always have each other and each other's full support.
They're so inseparable, both physically and mentally, that when they're not wearing matching shirts to be twinsies during a two-night, school night sleepover at Maya's, they're wearing the same shirt, as in squeezing into a single oversized shirt looking like some two-headed monster. They're less two friends than a single entity, knowing what the other will say before they say it and encouraging each other to push boundaries as a duo. One's success belongs to both of them, and if they can experience something together, it's even better, as is the case late in the season when they both get to second base at the same time by the same boy, one of his hands on one of Maya's boobs and the other hand on one of Anna's boobs.
Of course, a picture-perfect friendship isn't entirely believable because anyone who's had a bestie has, at one point or another, taken off their half of the Best Friends Forever broken heart pendant they share and put it in their desk drawer during an argument. While earlier episodes intertwine their individual arcs with potential boyfriends and family issues, the first season wisely takes the spotlight off those stories to highlight their friendship in the final two episodes during a fight between them that's so heartbreaking to watch because we realize -- at the same time they do -- that they can't survive without each other.
And though I spent the middle episodes really, really wanting to see Sam (Taj Cross) and Maya get together -- they're the only TV ship I will ever care about -- the fracture and mending between Maya and Anna in the last two episodes became the most beautiful part of the season. Going back full-throttle to what the show is really about -- Maya and Anna, BFFs -- made me realize, again, what was truly important to PEN15. PEN15 isn't about being friends at the turn of the millennium, it's about the timelessness of childhood friendship and how it will never leave you. A montage set to the Cranberries' "Dreams" of the two of them goofing off like we all did as kids is powerful stuff, leaving you not nostalgic for the era but for your own best friend you had growing up, during that magical period of teetering between innocence and post-puberty angst.
It's easy to write "two middle-schoolers are best friends" as part of the premise of a show, but selling it is a different story. Authenticity in Hollywood is rare on and off the screen, but PEN15 has it on-screen because it also has it off-screen. Erskine and Konkle are such great friends in real life -- they've been friends for over 10 years since they met in college, and they watch the Real Housewives of New Jersey together -- that their comfort levels together leap off screen, sparking with a natural chemistry that can't be developed over a meeting in a producer's office. Watching the two together, sometimes you not only forget that they're actors, you forget that they're adults because Erskine and Konkle nail all the true signs of friendship at that age, or any age for that matter. There's a lot of hugging, wobbly bumping into each other, and face touching -- like literally cradling each others' faces -- that just doesn't happen between two actors who've only had real convos outside the craft services truck.
And PEN15 wouldn't work without that legitimate friendship, because like most coming-of-age friendship stories, Maya and Anna are on an island together as they enter middle school with hopes and dreams of conquering this new social nightmare. As we're thrust back to the year 2000 and Erskine and Konkle walk among real middle-schoolers, it's the friendship that powers the show and allows the real story to shine through. Ten episodes of nostalgic callbacks and awkward slow dances between a grown woman in kid drag and a boy whose voice is about to crack wouldn't survive on their own, but by the time the ups and downs of Maya and Anna's friendship come to a close in the season finale, you'll be grabbing your phone to call your own BFF because the story's real, authentic friendship hits that hard.
Because this is such a competitive category, TV Guide wanted to take this opportunity to shout-out all the runners-up who just barely missed out on the honor of Best BFFs: Vanderpump Rules' Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval, whose matching white suits are the ultimate friendship goals, Crazy Ex Girlfriend's Rebecca and Paula, who were always the show's real love story, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Midge and Susie, who have helped one another grow beyond what they ever dreamed for themselves.
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