Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 12: Pen15 and Barry.

The main characters of Pen15 embrace. Barry looks through the scope of a rifle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulu and HBO.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

We seem to be writing about individual shows this round—so I’ll take two favorites from the year we haven’t discussed yet.

Pen15 is so micro-targeted to girls who were in middle school in the year 2000 that I’m not entirely surprised it has a limited scope. The series puts creators/stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, in their 31-year-old bodies, back in seventh grade—surrounded by 13-year-olds. It’s not time travel; they are just, as adults, playing their insecure, whiny, giddy teen selves, in the midst of the awful confusion of puberty. Konkle and Erskine are so adept at switching into their immature selves that it becomes nearly seamless, and at the same time, you’re forced to reencounter this incredibly familiar environment through the eyes of adult women.

I really loved it. It made me think about how being that age, 13 to 14, feels both incredibly grown-up and very immature at the same time, and how your selves at different ages essentially live inside you, waiting for the right opportunity to appear. Erskine and Konkle’s characters have conflicts that are so familiar—these little turf wars or identity crises that turn into emotional firestorms our characters barely understand, all handled in the most petulant and passive-aggressive ways possible. A lot of teen TV emphasizes how grown up they are—Euphoria! Twin Peaks! Riverdale! But Pen15 has a sensitive awareness to how teens are still childlike—a vulnerability and a source of strength, too.

Kathryn, so much of what you said about the little weird shows being lost in the streaming shifts—I feel the same trepidation. My colleague Joy Press wrote about “peak vagina,” and how the current mood in Hollywood is moving away from plucky little female shows in favor of surer bets, safer investments, etc.

At least there’s always HBO to provide what feels, at times, like an oasis of creative vision. I wasn’t especially expecting to like Barry when I first heard about it—but Bill Hader wrapped me up in his character’s tormented efforts to be better. The urgency of his secrets, and his terrifying skills as a hit man, add all this tension and suspense to a show that otherwise is full of these very funny interactions. The result has felt like this rare, special combination of dread and laughter, which seems very suited to 2019, as you all know. It helps that the ensemble is filled with comic actors who know how to exploit timing: Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, and of course Anthony Carrigan, aka NoHo Hank.

We talked earlier about how great HBO’s year was. As we head into our final round, what did everyone think about the final season of Veep?

Sonia

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