The Women Behind the Thirteen-Year-Olds of “PEN15” (2024)

Around then, another pair of best friends, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, débuted their stoner comedy “Broad City,” on Comedy Central, and it became a runaway success. Suddenly, TV executives were looking for the next big female duo. Konkle and Erskine landed several “general meetings,” an industry term for open-ended pitch sessions. One of the ideas they batted around was a sitcom called “Fosters,” in which they’d play former cult members hiding out by posing as teen-agers in a foster family. (“This was before ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ came out,” Erskine said, referring to the Netflix comedy that also follows a cult escapee.) In order to generate plotlines for the show, they would sit with Zvibleman and recount tales from their own adolescence. “Maya talked about hiding her period for a year, and Anna talked about shaving her legs,” he recalled. “It was a mile a minute, and their connection is so intense. I said, ‘These stories are beyond fascinating to me.’” At N.Y.U., Erskine and Konkle had studied the Grotowski method, which Konkle described as “the idea that physicality can inform feelings and the brain.” At some point, Erskine told me, Zvibleman said, “‘Forget pretending to be kids. Just be thirteen.’”

Konkle’s most vivid experience of being thirteen was witnessing the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Her mother and father had fought bitterly throughout her childhood. In 2000, they announced that they would divorce, but the negotiations took three years in court. During that time, Peter, Konkle’s father, refused to move out of the family home. The house was divided into two hostile territories, with Konkle often playing peacemaker. Her mother, Janet Ryan, a retired nurse with a hippieish vibe, recalled that her daughter seemed mature beyond her years. One winter, the family cat killed Konkle’s beloved hamster, Chucky. “I collapsed on the carpet sobbing,” Ryan said. “And then Anna comes down the stairs and comforts me. She said, ‘It’s O.K., Mommy.’” Konkle told me, “I was so angry with my parents. My mom would be, like, ‘But for you wasn’t it nice having the family together?’ And I’m, like, ‘Um, no, are you insane?’” After years of estrangement, Konkle reconnected with her father when he was given a diagnosis of lung cancer, in 2019. She became his caretaker during the final months of his life.

Anna’s parents’ divorce is in “PEN15,” at the end of Season 1, but the process is nowhere near as long or as acrimonious as the one Konkle experienced. For the scene in which Anna’s parents break the news that they’re splitting up, though, Konkle adhered to the details as she recalled them. She was sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor, folding clothes. Her parents rapped gently on the door. They delivered the news gingerly while her mom, named Kathy in the show and played by Melora Walters, fidgeted with the rings on her fingers. “‘My parents told me they are getting a divorce’ is a trope, or it can sound blunt and obvious,” Konkle said. “I wanted to show exactly what it felt like, looked like, from my P.O.V.”

Konkle’s avatar rebels against her parents, smoking cigarettes and getting drunk and stealing another girl’s pink thong, which Anna and Maya take turns wearing to school. Konkle merely spent as much time as possible away from home, often at the house of her best friend, Courtney. On “PEN15,” just before Anna’s parents announce their divorce, she spends two nights at the Ishii-Peterses’. At first, the girls run through the house stuffed into the same giant T-shirt, and chant, “We. Are. Sisters.” But Maya soon grows weary of sharing her family and starts acting out. In one scene, Maya’s mother, Yuki, tenderly combs Anna’s hair in the living room, ignoring her daughter’s petulance.

The part of Yuki is played by Erskine’s mother, Mutsuko, whom I met one morning this past summer at the family home, a nineteen-thirties bungalow on a sleepy side street in Santa Monica. When I entered, Peter, Maya’s father, who is a dead ringer for Rob Reiner, invited me to remove my shoes. On a shelf in the family room sat bobblehead dolls of Erskine and Konkle—a gift from Erskine’s half brother, Taichi, who is an editor on “PEN15.” Mutsuko, who goes by Mutsy, had never acted before appearing on the show. Originally from the Tokyo suburbs, she first met Peter, a drummer in the renowned jazz-fusion band Weather Report, while working as a translator for American artists touring Japan. Mutsy later married another man and had Taichi. When that relationship ended, she moved with Taichi to the U.S., and they settled with Peter in California just before Erskine was born.

As a mixed-race, middle-class family, the Erskines stood out in Santa Monica. From kindergarten through ninth grade, Erskine attended Crossroads, an élite private school known for educating the children of the rich and famous. She did not quite qualify for a need-based scholarship, and Peter often toured a hundred and eighty days a year in order to afford the tuition. By seventh grade, Erskine told me, she was no longer close with her elementary-school friends: “I realized I’m not as rich as them. I would beg my mom, ‘I need a Kate Spade bag.’” In the bat-mitzvah episode of “PEN15,” Maya pleads with her parents to buy a Swarovski necklace as a gift for Becca. The same thing happened in real life, except the necklace was from Tiffany. “My mom was, like, ‘Let’s just give the traditional eighteen-dollar check.’ And I was, like, ‘You will f*cking ruin my life if we give that.’” Mutsy told me that when Erskine was about thirteen she started feuding regularly with her brother and her mother. “Taichi said it was unbearable to be here,” Mutsy said. “Peter was often away, and we’d be having these arguments. Even the next-door boys said, ‘Shut up!’”

Mutsy and Peter walked me through the family room to Erskine’s childhood bedroom, which is now a guest room with soothing turquoise walls. In the hallway outside hung a photograph of Mutsy and a young Erskine in a hot spring in the Japanese town of Hakone. During Erskine’s youth, the family went back to Japan about once a year, and in their bathroom in Los Angeles Peter and Mutsy installed a Japanese-style soaking tub. It is roomy and pale blue, with a foldable top made of hinoki wood. As an adolescent who longed to fit in, Erskine struggled with her Japanese identity. “I think I had this belief that not being white or looking like other people around me made me wrong,” she told me. But bathing with her mother in the Japanese tradition was a source of comfort. “We would have a really heated argument, like her screaming ‘I hate you!,’ and Maya would say, ‘Mom, let’s just take a bath,’” Mutsy recalled. Erskine included that ritual in “PEN15,” and in the upcoming season she wrote and directed an episode that tells Yuki’s backstory. “Maya kept calling me Mom on set,” Mutsy joked. “I did not like that. ‘Mom, put your hands here. Mom, do this dance.’ I am a professional!” She added, chuckling, “Even now, she reverts.”

In 2014, Erskine, Konkle, and Zvibleman wrote a sprawling, sixty-page script for the first episode of “PEN15,” which Konkle affectionately described as “the pilot that went in the trash.” Still, it piqued the interest of an executive at Party Over Here, a production company created by the comedy collective the Lonely Island. At the time, Party Over Here had a development deal with Fox to sign new talent and fund short proof-of-concept shoots. With a budget of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Erskine, Konkle, and Zvibleman shot a fifteen-minute “PEN15” episode, which featured Maya and Anna primping before a school dance while listening to Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants.” In early 2016, they sent the video to HBO, Showtime, FX, and Hulu, along with a pitch packet that looked like a fake yearbook. On the cover page of their master copy, Konkle typed a joke about pubescent nipples and a mantra: “The thirteen year old inside me lives at all times.”

FX told the women’s agent that the show was “too millennial.” HBO was interested, but only if the team would keep making “short form” content. In a meeting with Showtime, Erskine presented a male executive with an old snapshot of her with her father and joked that she had masturbat*d right before it was taken. “He was, like, ‘I’m starting to get nauseous,’” she told me, adding, “It was the worst pitch of all time for me.” Hulu ultimately committed to a one-season contract, with a budget that Zvibleman kiddingly described as “maybe the lowest you can make a show for and still have a union crew.”

After two years of development, casting began in 2018. The team sought out young co-stars who projected naturalism—“non-Disney, non-Nickelodeon,” as Liedman, the Season 1 showrunner, put it. Sami Rappoport was fourteen and had never acted professionally before. Between takes of scenes in which Becca had to be mean to Maya and Anna, Rappoport would apologize to Erskine and Konkle. (“She told us she was in an anti-bullying club at school,” Konkle said.) At first, Konkle, Erskine, and Zvibleman dreamed of featuring guest stars like Eric André or Amy Sedaris playing the parts of other teen-age characters. In the end, they decided that the effect would be most powerful if Anna and Maya were the only kids in school with wrinkles. “It just further made us like aliens,” Konkle said.

Erskine and Konkle starred in every episode, wrote the majority of the scripts, and were minutely involved in post-production. Their closeness animated the series, but it also led to arguments and hurt feelings. Every decision felt acutely personal. “I remember editing till three in the morning, and we had to, like, lose a second to make air,” Zvibleman said. “And we would fight to the death over which frame to take out.” They adopted language to soften how they communicated—instead of “bugging me,” Erskine would say “bumping me.” At one point, she sought advice from Rob McElhenney, who writes and stars in the sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with his longtime friends Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton. McElhenney told her that he and his partners had resolved disputes with a simple, majority-wins voting system. For the “PEN15” team, the method didn’t stick, though. “So we came up with another rule: What’s your passion level?” Erskine told me. “But then everyone would say, ‘My passion level is a ten.’” Konkle attributed much of the stress to the dynamics of working as a threesome: “Someone was always on an island.”

The team’s creative tensions seeped into Maya and Anna’s story lines, sometimes to comedic effect. At the end of Season 2, the girls prepare for a school production of an original, Tennessee Williams-esque play written by their pompous drama teacher, who is played by Erskine’s real-life partner, Michael Angarano. Maya is the star of the show and Anna is the stage manager, and they spend rehearsals jockeying for power. “You guys are doing tech and we’re, like, doing art,” Maya tells her. “Tech is art,” Anna snaps back. (Erskine told me, “Anna and I would improv how we would passive-aggressively give each other notes, and it would make us crack up.”) In a pivotal scene on the play’s opening night, Maya forgets her lines and freezes. Anna makes a split-second decision to sprinkle glitter from the rafters in order to feed her a cue. Suddenly, as if in a dream, the teen actors and stagehands all begin to perform a ballet in unison, with the audience swaying along. Erskine and Zvibleman tend to favor cinematic flourishes, while Konkle prefers to preserve a more grounded vérité feel. Many debates ended with Konkle “on an island.” But Zvibleman said that he had lobbied both women to include this fantasy sequence of coöperative harmony. “Our hypersensitivity to each other is what makes the process hard,” Erskine said of Konkle. “But it’s also what lends itself to our chemistry. We alchemize it in a way that is the soul of the show.”

When the pandemic arrived, the trio were in the process of shooting Season 2. Production shut down, and they converted one episode—the story of a girls’ trip to Florida with Anna’s dad—into an animated special that Konkle directed remotely. They also pursued their own projects. Konkle sold a memoir to Random House about her parents’ divorce, tentatively titled “The Sane One.” Erskine shot a small role in an upcoming “Star Wars” series and booked a few bigger acting jobs that she is “not yet at liberty to talk about.” In the summer of 2020, Erskine told Konkle that she and Angarano were trying for a baby. Konkle and her partner, Alex Anfanger, had no immediate plans to start a family, but just a few weeks later Konkle discovered that she was pregnant. (Erskine’s son, Leon, and Konkle’s daughter, Essie, were born a few months apart, in early 2021.) The creators had always envisaged “PEN15” ending after three seasons—at some point, they would all have to move past seventh grade—but COVID and its attendant difficulties cemented their decision. Zvibleman, meanwhile, decided that he would leave the show. Erskine and Konkle would complete the final season alone. (On the subject of Zvibleman’s departure, the women assumed a tone of cautious diplomacy. “We’re forever grateful for how much Sam gave of himself to the show,” they wrote in a joint statement.)

“He finally agreed to take me dancing, and then we both realized we have no idea where you’d go to do that or what it even means.”

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

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In Season 3 (Hulu is calling it Season 2, Part 2; it premières on December 3rd), Maya and Anna are still a unit, but some of their most intense experiences are taking place independently. Maya’s cousin comes from Japan to stay with the Erskines and is a hit with the kids at school. “Why is being Japanese special on her but not on me?” Maya asks. Anna’s grandmother moves into the family home but soon dies, and Anna struggles with her grief. Maya starts taking medication for A.D.D., and Anna gets a boyfriend, Steve (Chau Long). Eventually, the girls decide to run away from home together but—spoiler—they don’t even make it out of town. At first, Erskine and Konkle had different ideas for how to end the series. Erskine proposed that in the final scene they smash-cut ahead twenty years, to a houseparty that Maya and Anna are attending. They are adults now—no more bowl cut, no more braces. “And you don’t hear anything, it’s just music,” Erskine said. “Anna looks and she sees Maya across the room, and they have this shared connection. And you don’t know, did they come together?” Erskine couldn’t sell Konkle on the scene’s ambiguity. “Anna hated the idea of them growing apart,” Erskine said.

In October, Erskine and Konkle allowed me to observe them at work in a virtual screening room as they wrapped up the final scene that they ultimately agreed upon. Erskine was at her home in the Hollywood Hills, wearing a green T-shirt and large over-the-ear headphones. Konkle, in a nearby office space, was fiddling with a plastic tooth flosser, but otherwise the mood of the proceedings was businesslike. The women and the finale’s editor, Matt McBrayer, each occupied a small box at the top of the screen. A larger box at the center held the queued-up footage. McBrayer clicked a Play button, and they all watched in silence. In the show’s final minutes, Maya and Anna are sitting on the floor of Anna’s bedroom, gushing over their own baby photos. The scene sticks to the year 2000 while making room for the girls’ future selves. When it finished, a plunky tune from the “PEN15” score played.

“I think this music’s so beautiful,” Erskine said. “ ’Cause it is so Maya and Anna, but it feels so... full.” She made a dramatic sweeping motion. The others murmured in agreement. Then Erskine brought up a lingering editing quibble.

The Women Behind the Thirteen-Year-Olds of “PEN15” (2024)
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