In the weeks leading up to the July 16th Emmy nominations, Primetimer staff and contributors will be making our picks for which people (and shows) we think deserve recognition for their work this year. For your consideration today, a longshot, but an impassioned one: Hulu's PEN15 for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series.
Hulu's PEN15 isn't the first series to tackle the foibles of adolescence, but it may well be the first take as its very real premise that coming of age is not purely an exercise in forward motion. Despite the way it's portrayed in so many works of fiction, we don't simply transition from childhood to adulthood after learning a few big big lessons. Instead, we spend several years ping-ponging between the two, with no idea which role is expected of us (or which we actually want). Set in the late 1990s, this is the world in which the PEN15 lives. In a single episode, best friends Anna and Maya can go from drinking beer with boys at a party to innocently hanging out in Maya's room playing with Sylvanian Family figures.
The complexities and contradictions of this dichotomy are brilliantly captured through (co-creators and stars) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's performances, and the show's razor-sharp writing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Episode 6, "Posh," written by Andrew Rhymer and Jeff Chan.
As the episode opens, Maya (who is half Japanese) and Anna (who is white) are preparing to host three popular girls at Maya's home, where they're working on a group project: a music video PSA about the dangers of osteoporosis. ("I just hope everyone takes this project seriously," says Anna. "Osteoporosis is no joke.") Details that both encapsulate the world of eighth grade and the world of 1999 are abundant, from the package of Gushers on the coffee table to the camcorder time-stamp to the rampant bickering over who will portray which Spice Girl. Maya wants to be Posh, but the popular girls insist she must be Scary "because you're tan." Her tan-ness apparently also relegates her to the role of servant, a slight which she attempts to laugh off and which Anna, trying to make inroads with the popular girls, is hesitant to speak up against.
That night, Maya's mother and older brother are horrified to learn of the incident, and both girls come away feeling like they're in trouble (like children), but also (like adults) that there are societal power structures in place that they'll both benefit from and bristle against.
Shaken by the realization that she's enabled racist behavior and might even be racist herself, Anna turns to 1999's foremost authority on most things, Ask Jeeves, to learn more. While the information superhighway opens her eyes, the lessons it imparts are far from perfect (a blink-and-you'll-miss-it gag sends an article on food allergies cascading through the results when she searches for "how do I cure intolerance"). Her ultimate conclusion: she'll stage a demonstration to shed light on racism in the middle-school community.
Predictably, this goes awry, but the awkwardness of the execution and its rapid descent into slur-slinging pandemonium is perfectly executed. (Anna, presumably raised on the same sitcoms and After-School Specials of the rest of her generation, likely expects the hall to fall silent for her speech and then break into applause, racism fixed forever; that the show unflinchingly smashes this trope doubles the awkwardness of the moment.) When the adults in her life -- from the principal who brushes her off, to the teacher who ignores her protests that she had good intentions, to her nearly-divorced parents who are more interested in sniping at each other than in anything Anna's done -- have no wisdom to impart, Anna decides to declare a hunger strike that won't last the episode.
For Maya's part, the incident forces her to confront the ways in which she's suppressed her own cultural identity, and to examine the actual definition of racism. When Maya's older brother Shuji finds her sobbing in the hallway after Anna's misguided demonstration, her invites her to skip class and hang out with his friends, who offer her a hit of weed from an apple and a lesson in identifying microaggressions. She declines the former, but the latter shakes her to her core. But like the adults in Anna's life, Maya's elders don't have any great solutions, merely an insistence that she needs to fight Anna in order to make things right. Maya may not be ready to smoke the apple, but she WILL take a big bite to show her toughness as she prepares to confront her best friend.
Ultimately, Anna and Maya make peace with each other by simply talking it out, but while they walk away from the situation with a new awareness of their world, the show does not pretend to answer the question of what they can do to combat everyday, systemic racism. For today, they understand just a little bit more about their world, and that's enough to let them go back to goofy play-fighting, Spice Girl style.
"Posh" is a nuanced portrayal of a complicated issue that avoids the trap of pretending it's actually making inroads to make (in Anna's words) "racism solved forever." Although it faces stiff competition for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series from the likes of Veep, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag, a nomination for writers Andrew Rhymer and Jeff Chan would go a long way in recognizing a clear standout in an excellent debut season.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.