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‘PEN15’s’ cringeworthy moments bring middle school back to life

“Pen15” stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine discuss the importance of having the period scene in their show.

In the glut of TV series this season, it’s pretty safe to say only “PEN15” offered a close-up shot of menstrual blood on a scrunched up wad of toilet paper.

And that may be why the Hulu series has people talking.

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The quirky adult comedy is a charming, if incredibly cringe-worthy, look at the emotionally torturous time of life called middle school — from unrequited crushes and school cliques to the hormone-crazy realities of puberty. Set in the year 2000, the series manages to tap into the underbelly of adolescence with truthfulness largely because its thirtysomething co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine star as seventh grade versions of themselves — school rejects Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters — surrounded by actual teenage actors. As such, the actresses can go places that might be questionable to ask of their younger counterparts.

It’s why a whole episode revolved around young female masturbation. And why another touched on the alarming introduction to experiencing a first period. When Erskine and Konkle recently visited the L.A. Times video studio to discuss the series, they talked about how exploring these topics through a comedic filter made it less taboo and offered an opportunity to bring some levity to coming-of-age moments.

“That felt really important, I think, to us, to see it,” Konkle said, referring to the scene where Maya, the character, first discovers she’s gotten her period. “And in a comedy. I think it’s funny. I think it’s absurd. I think it’s weird. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s disturbing. I think it’s all of these things. This is something we have to deal with when we’re 12, 13, 8, whatever — and for most of our lives … to not show it felt like, why? Why wouldn’t we show this?”

Hulu recently renewed the series, which also counts Sam Zvibleman (“Take My Wife”) as a third creator, for a second season. And there’s no shortage of awkward moments to draw on, which partly explains the pair’s idea to keep the show set in middle school for perpetuity.

“I think we’re hoping to explore slightly more mature and darker content,” Erskine said, “since the girls have gone through — ”

— “More losses of innocence,” Konkle offered.

“And I think we’re going to try to keep serializing,” Erskine continued. “So, picking up where we left off, ideally. Anna’s parents just got divorced. Maya just got her period, still hasn’t shared it with Anna. They both kind of hooked up with a guy, together, and what’s the fallout of that going to be … or does that not get mentioned at all?”

Erskine and Konkle also talked about the tricky process of pitching the show to networks, how working with teenage actors triggered their own insecurities, and the art of the mix CD.

To watch the full conversation, check out the video below:

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