In the first episode of Pen15’s second season, there’s an Oreo cookie severed at the seams and rebonded with about 12 additional slabs of cream filling, creating a huge cookie tower. The super-stuffed snack is constructed and implicitly consumed off screen, but anyone who’s eaten a Oreo can picture a kid meticulously twisting the chocolate cookies apart and messily peeling away the loosened frosting with sticky fingers.
In junior high, I might have taken to stacking and smooshing together custom-stuffed Oreos privately at home, out of sight of judgmental peers. But this particular pile in Pen15 is sitting in front of Brendan, Anna Kone’s (Anna Konkle) first-season boyfriend; viewers know him as one of those kids who by some miracle seems to exude no shame or embarrassment, no matter his age. He’s peeling apart Oreos, but he’s surrounded by a pool party filled with seventh graders who are consumed by their own self-consciousness. He is who he is.
Pen15 is a show that thrives on discomfort, while at the same time capturing the satisfying, weird, and wonderful moments of being in seventh grade. At its heart it’s a show made by adults, for adults, about being a preteen and it features two adult women — creators Konkle and Maya Erskine — playing their preteen analogues in a cast filled with actual preteens. Each episode is a capsule of horny, embarrassing, tragic seventh grade life that’s built so effectively viewers sometimes forget they’re watching mature women act immature. But the great thing is that these are two adult women, who have the knowledge of hindsight to see that sometimes kids can be cruel and rude as well as occasionally gross with their food.
Ask any kid (as Eater did, recently), and they can tell you in intimate detail their favorite snacks and what they mean to them as a person. And in junior high, where everyone’s opinion seems to matter, snacks are a status symbol. What’s Brandt, the boy who fumbled in a closet with Anna and Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) eating at the pool party? An entire bag of Hot Cheetos — the snack for kids that want to show they can handle spice.
No episode captures the power behind kid snacks better than episode four, in which Maura, an image-obsessed girl who peppers her sentences with the word “fool,” literally buys people’s adoration by handing out Ring Pops at school. Later, she seals Maya and Anna’s friendship with a visit to her home pantry, which is neatly organized with packs of iconic millennial snacks like Pop-Tarts, Gushers, Squeezeits, Hi-C, and Pringles.
Maura’s mother wanders into the kitchen and offers the girls drinks, listing from a fridge filled with Yoplait and Capri Suns. Maya blurts, “Yes.” She and Anna each take three bottles of Powerade. The best friends are so mesmerized by the choices that they overlook the extremely rude interaction Maura has with her mother, and turn their gaze to the crystal jars on the counter filled with jawbreakers, a candy that I probably haven’t thought about since I was 13. Soon the three of them are strolling, arms locked, through the halls of school, their mouths plugged with jawbreakers and a ring of sugary film coating their lips. Drool trails out of their mouths.
Where other shows like Stranger Things use popular food brands and packaging as a visual timestamp, Pen15’s creators embrace the underlying signals of kid snacks in the middle school, as well as the frequently icky ways we interact with these foods. And it’s these layers of understanding of the true awkward, terrible, beauty of being an adolescent tween that make Pen15 such a worthwhile cringe watch — not to mention one that’s made me nostalgic for Squeezeits. I suggest you make a night of it by binging all seven episodes with a can of Surge and some Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. Don’t worry, no one’s judging your snack choices on your quarantine couch.
Pen15 Season 2 premieres on Friday, September 18 on Hulu.