CRINGE WARNING

A note-perfect episode of Hulu’s “PEN15” captures the distinct awkwardness of middle-school band

Adult actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves, as 13-year-olds.
Adult actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves, as 13-year-olds.
Image: Hulu
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Anyone who’s ever played in a school band will see themselves in the fourth episode of Hulu’s new comedy series PEN15, which came out in full on the streaming service Friday (Feb. 8). No TV show or film has ever so perfectly captured the cringeworthy essence that makes those performances so memorable.

Co-created by actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle and produced by comedian Andy Samberg, PEN15 stars Erskine and Konkle (who are both 31) playing 13-year-old versions of themselves navigating the 7th grade in the year 2000. The reasoning for the adult actors playing their younger selves is twofold: Thematically, it reflects the fact that we never really outgrow some parts of who we were at that age. Practically, the creators wanted the show to be as R-rated as real-life middle school truly is (sorry, parents!), and that required using adult actors for certain scenes they couldn’t force an actual child to perform. All of Maya and Anna’s classmates are played by age-appropriate kids.

The result is a hysterical and sometimes disturbing romp through the era of gel pens, puka shell necklaces, oversized cargo shorts, and the Backstreet Boys. The show’s title is derived from the decade-specific prank in which a kid would convince someone to join the “Pen15 Club” (pronounced pen-fifteen); the only rule for joining is that one must allow the word “PEN15” (read: penis) to be written somewhere on the body. Kids were so clever.

PEN15’s fourth installment, “Solo,” is a stroke of genius. In it, the school band and choir join forces for a “Night of Amazing Music” performed in front of the whole school (attendance is mandatory). Anna gets an important French horn and singing solos, while Maya is given the illustrious honor of a three-note timpani part on a piece written by the band teacher. (Tim Russ is wonderful as the frustrated Mr. Wyzell, who’s not paid nearly enough to try to teach these children how to play the trumpet. There’s a Mr. Wyzell in every school.)

Anna is musically gifted; Maya is utterly hopeless. Compounding the issue is that she only has a few days to learn her part (in reality, we would have practiced a new song for months), and her dad is coming home from playing on the road with his Steely Dan cover band.

She turns to a classmate for help learning the part. “Sure, I am the best drummer in the band,” the boy says. (There are two drummers in the band.) Meanwhile, Anna and another girl each audition for a short solo in “Ave Maria” by taking turns singing “Happy Birthday.” Anna wins the gig, her rival is told to perform the sign language accompaniment.

When the big night arrives, Maya is so nervous about impressing her dad that she hyperventilates backstage and her hands begin to seize up so badly that she can’t grip the mallets:

Image: Hulu

What follows is the greatest drum solo ever committed to screen. It must be seen in its entirety to be believed, but just know that some dark energy moves through Maya, causing her to play quite a bit more than the three simple notes required of her.

Image: Hulu

You don’t necessarily need to have seen any of the show’s other 10 episodes to enjoy “Solo,” but you’ll likely want to. PEN15 is filled with amazing little details of adolescence—things those of us who grew up around then may not have thought much about in the intervening years but know to be true the moment we see them on-screen. A handwritten note with font so small it requires a microscope to read it. Faxing drawings back and forth in the time before cell phones. Unspeakably bad bowl cuts.

But PEN15 isn’t just nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. Similar to Bo Burnham’s breakout middle-school dramedy Eighth Grade, the Hulu series has a full, beating heart, and it’s created and written by people who know we can still learn a lot about ourselves by looking back at who we used to be.