In Hulu's PEN15, series creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have turned back the clock to 2000 to focus on the comedy-horror of entering seventh grade. They pass notes written in gel pen, accidentally send kickballs careening at their crush's face, and navigate the perilous world of middle school friendships. So many moments on the show feel so painfully real that you can't help but wonder while watching: is PEN15 based on a true story?
The answer to that is both yes and no. The show is a heightened comedy that blends real life details with farcical situations, though many of them are inspired by Erskine and Konkle's real lives. Their characters are tween versions of themselves but the show is not a biographical play-by-play. Instead it combines the real with the imagined to create something that feels deeply honest despite also being so surreal.
According to Vulture, the friendship that Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone share on the show is as dedicated as the one Erskine and Konkle have in real life. But unlike the show, they didn't meet in middle school; they first crossed paths in their junior year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. While Erskine and Konkle didn't actually go through all of PEN15's ordeals together, they did use their real experiences to inform Maya and Anna's respective journeys.
That manifested in large and small ways. Erskine told Vulture that when she panics, she gets carpopedal spasms that make her hands "turn into claws"; the same thing happens to the onscreen Maya when she's anxious before a drum solo in the school music show. Maya's mother is played by Erskine's actual mom, too. Awkward first kisses and masturbatory mishaps were also gleaned from real life experiences.
When Anna's parents divorce, much of the scene is taken directly from Konkle's memories of her parents deciding to split. As she told The Hollywood Reporter, "That scene [of her parents telling her they were divorcing], as the best that I could do, it was straight out of how I remembered it."
Erskine and Konkle attended middle school far from each other: Erskine went to the Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, California, while Konkle grew up in Massachusetts. Despite the different locales, they both dealt with similar feelings of not fitting in. And those feelings resurfaced years later when they went to a party where many of Erskine's middle school classmates were guests. It made them feel like they were back in seventh grade again. And that's how the idea for PEN15 was born.
Erskine explained to the L.A. Times that they felt like they "hadn't seen middle school represented in a way that felt authentic and true to our experiences." By having the 31-year-old Erskine and Konkle play their teen selves, they were able to fully explore the trauma of the past without making it traumatic to watch; the distance allowed the show to be funnier than it might have been otherwise. The fact that the supporting cast is made up of real seventh graders only enhances the joke.
Much of PEN15 is gleaned from the creators' lives, but it's reworked and reimagined. It's not a single true story, but many fused together to create something that hopefully resonates with lots of people in the audience.