Pen15 is the 90’s show I wish I’d written.
(The first season of Pen15 is streaming on Hulu. It’s rated M).
First, the title is brilliant.
The only thing that might come close is an image of an upside down calculator with 58008.
Second, the 90’s references are right on. The toys, the fashion, technology, the food, the school supplies. . .
Third, the SOUNDTRACK is perfect.
There should be a warning that Pen15 may cause nightmares even if middle school is decades behind you; the type of nightmares where you find yourself back in grade school where you can’t remember your locker combination or carrying a lunch tray desperately searching for a place to sit in the cafeteria.
Even so, Pen15 captures the heartbreak, humor, awkwardness, and beauty of that best friendship I remember from growing-up in the 90’s. As an awkward Asian girl who grew up in the suburbs, I related to Maya.
Here are seven of my favorite references that brought me back:
Des’ree’s song “You Gotta Be”
The moment where Maya and Anna make-up and dance to Des’ree’s song “You Gotta Be” is as beautiful and mesmerizing as Romy & Michelle’s dancing to Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time.” You may cry and that’s ok.
A few years ago, I randomly heard this song on my Spotify playlist after not thinking about it for decades. I was so struck by the relevance of the lyrics that I immediately tweeted, “Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” is still a good song!” If I had Instant Messenger, I would have added it to my away message.
Challenge what the future holds
Try and keep your head up to the sky. . . Thongs
A million years ago, we thought Victoria’s Secret was cool.
I haven’t stepped foot inside a VS for years. Like many women my age, I have decided I really don’t need uncomfortable things like underwires and thongs in my life.
The thong episode perfectly captures the mysteriousness and allure thongs held to nerdy girls like me. One of the cool girls bragged that thongs were actually more comfortable than non-thongs. She promised we’d get used to them.
This is certainly not true. Thongs are horrifically uncomfortable. Visible panty lines are OK. Life only gets more complicated so you might as well be comfortable!
You know that hairstyle – that one where we pulled our hair back but left two strands hanging in front of our face. It looked cool for a minute. During the day, those two little strands of hair became greasy. Probably because we were constantly fiddling with them and peeling them away from our faces.
AOL Instant Messenger
Watching the AIM episode was so real I felt like I was re-living the moment where we first logged onto Instant Messenger.
A lot of the experience centers around the nostalgic sounds, from the router’s dial-up tone to the doors opening and shutting as people jumped on and offline.
The scene where Anna and Maya enter a chatroom for the first time could have been written straight out of my childhood. We had fun goofing around in a chatroom pretending the hot model (whose photo we copied from the internet) until someone became too interested. Then it started to feel scary. Fortunately, things never escalated beyond that, but scared us into only chatting with our classmates.
Band & Choir Directors Who Took Things Too Seriously
Like Maya and Anna, I was a band and choir nerd. Most of us can relate to having that grade school music teacher who took things a bit too seriously.
These music teachers forgot we were kids, not professional musicians. Two of my grade choir directors would scream at us until their faces turned red. One threw a chair across the room, which we found endlessly funny.
The good ones, though, were really good. They took things to the right amount of seriousness and fostered self-esteem and a life-long love of music.
The Friend With The Fun Mom
We all had a friend with the fun mom who let you watch rated R movies in the basement and read Cosmos. In Pen15, they watch Wild Things, a movie I still haven’t seen to this day.
We did watch Scream and other movies some of our parents didn’t particularly approve of like Dumb & Dumber and Clueless. I don’t think we were worse for it.
I wondered if I missed something by not watching Wild Things so I read the plot summary. My reaction was, “Ummmm, this seems a little bit mature for middle schoolers,” so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the fun mom, but I’m sure grateful for them.
There’s this scene where Anne sings the entire Bagel Bites jingle. It played so often on TV, we’ll never forget it.
Pizza in the morning,
Pizza in the evenin,
Pizza at suppertime
When pizza’s on a bagel,
You can eat pizza anytime!
So, not a snack, but more of a meal, I remember the ultimate sleepover food was sharing Leeann Chin meals. Typically this was a combination of cream cheese wontons, oyster wings, and Peking chicken, of course.
I might not be the fun mom someday, but I’ll still have the best snacks.