Watching PEN15 feels like watching your own middle school experience played out on TV. It’s cringeworthy, but also cathartic, to see series co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle with their unflattering bowl cuts and braces playing 13-year-old versions of themselves as they navigate middle school in the year 2000. The Y2K-era nostalgia trend shows no signs of stopping any time soon—the success of a film like Lady Bird and the resurgence of early aughts fashion are examples of that—but Erskine and Konkle play up their awkward caricatures with so much empathy that they also manage to tug at your heartstrings a bit, too.
From Maya’s semi-accidental dabble with huffing computer cleaner to Anna’s dissatisfaction with her first kiss during a basement group screening of Wild Things, the awkward moments on PEN15 are as on-point and salient as the show’s pop culture references, from the staticky noise of a dial-up modem, the sounds of a slamming door or twinkling wind chimes on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM, for short), and harmonies of the Spice Girls that constituted the soundtrack of the 2000s. Hulu‘s PEN15—which takes its name from a prank in which a classmate might tell you that if you wanted to join the fictional “PEN15” club, you’d have to write it on your hand in marker, only to later realize that what you’ve written looks a lot like the name for genitalia—is a trip down memory lane, back to the most painful, tricky, and disorienting moments of being a young teen.
Erskine and Konkle spoke to W about their own experiences with AIM back in the day, where they shopped for clothes in middle school, and how their tastes have (or haven’t) changed since the dawn of the new millennium.
What was your first AIM screen name?
Anna Konkle: Mine was star4wayc, which is super embarrassing. All I remember is searching “moon” and “sun” and stuff like that, and that’s what I remember telling my friends, too, because I did theater, so I was very self-conscious to pick “star” and I would say, “Like, as in celestial things.” 4way was a random assignment which was a funny thing we brought into the “AIM” episode, like a random algorithm thing. I was harassed for the rest of time for having “4way” in my screen name, like people thought it was a sexual thing, and I was pretty much a prude. I just set myself up for being made fun of. The letter “c” was part of the algorithm. Like, “Diper911” [instead of “Viper911”] from the episode.
Maya Erskine: Mine was miamayapie. I still use it for my email. It was just me trying to keep my name in and make it cute.
What was in your Away Message?
Konkle: I did song quotes most of the time. My friend Courtney was obsessed with quote websites, so we’d go on those and I would copy her doing that and leave quotes about friendship. It would always be an away message for somebody. Like, “Friends are the flowers of the earth and if you don’t have them it’s not beautiful,” or something like that. Or you choose a really heavy Boyz II Men song about the boy you’ve been longing for since second grade. Or “BRB my mom needs something.”
Erskine: I always did “BRB.”
Konkle: That was it?
Erskine: “BRB” or “cyaqt” or “not here.” I used whatever was the standard one.
Konkle: You didn’t have to personalize it.
Erskine: I didn’t personalize it.
Konkle: Wow! That’s cool.
Erskine: I wasn’t cool! I just couldn’t come up with anything on my own.
Konkle: That’s what the cool people in my school did.
Which Spice Girl did you always want to be?
Erskine: Posh and Baby.
Konkle: I tried to be Ginger a lot, but I remember never getting her. I get Sporty, but I hated sports.
Where did you shop for clothes in middle school?
Erskine: There was this store where I grew up, and I couldn’t afford it, but all the cool girls would go to this place called Friend or something like that. It was Clueless type clothing, like really cute skirts with matching tops. Mary Janes. Insanely cute, but very expensive. I wanted a Kate Spade bag, glittery shirts. I would borrow friends’ clothes, and then hand-me-downs, and sometimes Delia’s.
Konkle: Oooh, Delia’s! I was obsessed with the catalog situation. It was like, where I picked out a birthday present. I had a corduroy olive green messenger bag that I bought, which was kind of life changing because I went from a backpack to that and it changed everything for me.
Erskine: Messenger bags were huge.
Konkle: There was this store where I was in Massachusetts, called, I wanna say RAV-4 but that’s the name of a car. [Laughs.] Rave? I think. It was very cheap materials that looked like Limited Too. I would go with my dad and convince him to do the specials there, like five shirts for $20 that would fall apart. But for the moment I really curated trying to look like everyone else there.
Were you into The Baby-Sitter’s Club books at all? What are your thoughts on the reboot?
Erskine: I loved the movie with Rachael Leigh Cook and the girl from Alex Mack [Larisa Oleynik]! I would watch that now.
Konkle: Also, I watched TGIF.
Erskine: All That, Doug, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Rocko’s Modern Life.
Konkle: There were the adult things you would watch that would get into the zeitgeist. Like, Married with Children, Seinfeld, and Frasier. Stuff you’d watch with your parents.
Erskine: I watched Sex and the City. My mom’s friend had video-tapes of them, and I would share them with my friends. I got in trouble with a girl’s mother because there was a blowjob scene or something. She shamed me for bringing it into her daughter’s life, even though her daughter was doing wilder things than that.
Speaking of moms, Maya, your real mom also plays your mom on PEN15. What was the most fun part about working with your mom and what was the most challenging?
Erskine: It was just fun to have her own set because she’s a little freak in the best way. [Laughs.] She was such a calming energy to have on set, and was so full of joy. It was great to direct her, too. It was a different bonding experience for our relationship. She had never seen me in action. I think around my family I’m super comfortable and I can act and revert back to a younger version of myself, and so this was the first time she saw me as an adult and as a boss, in a way. That was interesting for her, and it was cool to see her act well because it’s so new for her. I would just get annoyed when sometimes we were acting together, and it’s your mom so I’m so close with her, but we’re also so quick to get frustrated with each other. When I had to do an emotional scene, I remember at one point she kept putting her hand on my back to comfort me, which was really sweet, but for some reason that day I couldn’t handle it and I kept being like, “Stop touching my back, mom!” [Laughs.]
Anna, have you ever worked with your family, or would you like to in the future?
Konkle: I never have, and I probably never would. [Laughs.] No, I mean if there was something that came up. I mean, it’s not the norm! It’s so amazing that Maya started making student films when she was in high school. So, her family was in her films, and her brother was editing and making films too. I grew up in an area where there wasn’t a ton of art that was celebrated, and it wasn’t really a norm where people were like, let’s make a film! My parents were always super supportive of the arts and are artists in their own way.
Getting into some of the Culture Diet questions, what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
Konkle: Usually email, unfortunately. Or I’m very to-do list-y. I’ll start with something like that, but I would like to get back into the time when I was reading a ton of memoirs. That’s maybe my favorite thing to read.
Erskine: First thing in the morning is emails.
How do you get your news?
Erskine: The Skimm. I also get notifications on my phone of articles from The New York Times. I don’t have newspapers anymore, but I do have subscriptions to The New Yorker and New York magazine, even though I don’t live in New York.
Konkle: NPR radio. Lot of car time in L.A.
What books are on your bedside table?
Konkle: Murakami is always good. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I read that recently.
Erskine: I love Murakami too. I’m re-reading South of the Border, West of the Sun. I’m halfway through The Goldfinch. I’ll read that but then start on another book and I Just need to finish it this year.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
Erskine: I watch this girl who has a good ASMR profile.
Konkle: That’s great.
Erskine: She’s pretty talented.
Konkle: What does she eat?
Erskine: It ranges from spicy noodles to really crisp fruit.
Konkle: There’s this account, and I can’t remember the name so that’s super unhelpful, but it’s a woman who lives in Cobble Hill and her interior design is insane.
Erskine: I also like Humans of New York!
What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?
Erskine: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn on NPR.
Konkle: Billy Ray Cyrus.
What TV shows have been keeping you up all night?
Konkle: I’m obsessed with The Americans. I know I’m very behind. If I start watching I cannot go to bed, I have to go to the next one. Game of Thrones, obviously.
Erskine: I haven’t watched any TV recently but I will binge older shows so I just got back into The Sopranos.
Konkle: I’ve never seen it.
Erskine: Let’s watch it together!
Konkle: Another show that blows my mind is Nathan For You. I have to turn it off because I get so jazzed! I will walk out of a room because it pumps me up.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Konkle: Oh! Bumblebee. Did you guys see Bumblebee?
Konkle: It was good! It felt like a classic ’80s or ’90s movie. I don’t know how everybody felt about it, but I thought it was amazing. They did a really good job because I’m not really into those kinds of movies, like action heroes. It surprised me.
Erskine: This is how long it’s been since I’ve been in a movie theater. Mine was I think Home Alone. For Christmas last year.
What podcasts have you been into lately?
Erskine: I love podcasts. Radiolab, Invisibilia, Snap Judgment, WTF with Marc Maron, TED Radio Hour, This American Life. Just starting The Daily, I’m into that one. This Is Actually Happening, Accused. There’s a lot.
Konkle: Another TV show I’ll watch is Forensic Files which has bled into my podcast world, no pun intended. Dirty John, I know I’m behind, but I just listened to that a few months ago and it really fucked me up. I couldn’t function for a few days after that. Sometimes those podcasts about murder are a mistake.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
Konkle: It’s a Haim song, I can’t remember. [Sings.] And I’ve been listening to the Donnie Darko soundtrack to get really sad. Forensic Files, Donnie Darko, some uplifting stuff.
Erskine: I think it was a K-Pop BTS song.
What’s the last concert you went to?
Konkle: God I sound like I’m about 92 years old: Billy Joel.
Erskine: You love him!
Konkle: That was amazing. In New York.
Erskine: I went to my dad’s jazz quartet.
Konkle: That’s beautiful! Her dad is a jazz drummer.
Are you into astrology at all? What are your signs?
Konkle: I’m Aries.
Erskine: And I’m Taurus.
Konkle: It says that me and Maya aren’t compatible as business partners, but that’s not true.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Konkle: I just got a weighted blanket, so that goes on my body, flattens me down. It’s great.
Erskine: Oh, I need to get that.
Konkle: It feels like somebody’s laying down on top of you, but in a good way.
Erskine: I put a mouthguard in my mouth. That’s literally the thing I do right before my head hits the pillow. Or someone else puts it in my mouth for me because I fall asleep.
Konkle: My dog also—I guess that’s a lot of weight on top of me—he finds a spot half-on my legs. Oh, if there’s ice cream, that’s like the last thing. Ice cream in bed!
Erskine: Not just ice cream! A full meal. I’ll eat a full meal in bed and pass out immediately after.