How ‘PEN15’ Nailed the Heartbreaking Experience of the Closeted Y2K Middle-Schooler
There’s something that happens when watching PEN15, especially if you are a millennial, especially if you were 13 years old in the year 2000, especially if you can recite with perfect inflection the spoken-word monologue in Mandy Moore’s “Candy.”
You look at stars, creators, and writers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing a game of M.A.S.H. while gossiping over their see-through landline phones. You take in the constellations of orthodontia at their class pool party, akin to reading a dental star chart. You cringe as they call each other “slut bags,” as if they have any idea what the insult means. You suffer PTSD as they gyrate in their childhood bedrooms to sexually explicit hip-hop songs, cry along as their hearts shatter under the emotional anvils of rejection or bullying or both, and you think… that was me.
In the series, which launched its second season on Hulu last week, Erskine and Konkle play seventh-grade versions of themselves as they lived it 20 years ago, the only grown women alongside a cast of child and teen actors. At a time when everyone has an opinion on the plight of the millennial generation, it is the rare TV series to offer empathy. Here, it’s in the form of an origin story: coming of age at a time when the internet and culture wars complicated the already chaotic cocktail of adolescent emotion.
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Especially if you were that formative age in the indelible Y2K era, any given scene in an episode unlocks repressed memories so visceral it’s as if you’re watching your own home movies. That’s especially true as season two expands the scope of the show, delving deeper into the lives of Maya and Anna’s classmates.
Perhaps the most resonant is the deeper exploration of the character of Gabe, played by 14-year-old actor Dylan Gage. In Season 2, Gabe is cast opposite Maya in the school play and, spellbound by her talent, asks her to be his girlfriend. As the anticipation builds for their first kiss, scripted both in the play and by tween peer pressure, he starts to validate and deflect tortured questions he has about his own sexuality—especially as his more flamboyant classmate, Ian (Ivan Mallon), becomes a target of the cool crowd.
“I remember what it was like to be in middle school and to know that I was different, but to not know exactly why or how I was different,” says Joshua Levine, who was a writer on this season of PEN15 and responsible for much of Gabe’s arc.
The striking thing about Gabe’s storyline is that it isn’t a coming-out arc, as we’re used to watching on most teen series. We don’t watch him go through the emotional labor of coming out of the closet and dealing with the repercussions of that with his friends and family. In fact, he doesn’t even exactly articulate or admit to himself that he is gay.
“It’s that weird, tricky time where you’re starting to think about these things but not know what they mean,” Levine says. “And people say things like ‘that’s so gay’ and you feel the pain of that, wondering, ‘Are they talking about me? Am I gay?’ That in-between. Gabe is realizing that he’s questioning his sexuality, not that he’s realizing he’s gay.”
If it sounds vague and confusing, that’s because it is—and was. Like so many things on the show, it’s that ambiguity that PEN15 manages to portray with shocking, unexplainable clarity.
Though Gabe is a supporting character in the season, he is at the center of one the most realistic and complex explorations of what it was like to be a questioning, probably gay middle-schooler amidst the mixed messaging of the turn-of-the-millennium era: post-AIDS panic and the beginnings of pop-culture representation, soundtracked by culture-war debates over rights and religion. And, of course, the omnipresent usage of “that’s so gay” as a pejorative for anything lame, bad, or embarrassing and the normalized weaponization of “faggot” as an emasculating insult.
For scores of now-out gay millennials, the storyline found nuances in their unique, yet collective, experiences that they may have never actually excavated on their own. In other words, you watch those episodes of PEN15 and think… that was me.
It was actually Levine who wrote the episodes, as well as Gabe Liedman, who served as showrunner for Season 1 of the series and helped create the character Gabe based on his own life. (Everything in PEN15 is semi-autobiographical to someone; the writers’ room is a de facto therapy session in which everyone shares their own memories and experiences from growing up.)
The plan was always that Gabe was going to be gay. Liedman, Erskine, Konkle, and PEN15 co-creator Sam Zvibleman knew it likely wouldn’t be until Season 2 that they’d have the time and space to fully explore the character’s sexuality, but it was a version of the millennial experience they knew from the start they’d want to portray.
When the show cast Gage in the role, the group met with him to discuss the sensitive matter of where the character would be going and gauge his comfort level with it. “I was really prepared for it to be this really long sort of educational moment,” Liedman remembers. “Instead he was like, ‘Sure.’ It was nothing.”
“They told me that he was loosely based on Gabe Liedman, and I knew coming into the show that it was a character that was struggling with his sexuality,” Gage says. “For all the sensitive themes and storylines, they always sent me scripts early and made sure that I was comfortable with things. But I always was like, yes I want to do it. I want to push myself as an actor and I am really proud to be a part of the show.”
Gage, who is now 14, boasts that he was the only cast member who was still in middle school when the show began filming its first season two years ago.
“People say things like ‘that’s so gay’ and you feel the pain of that, wondering, ‘Are they talking about me? Am I gay?’ ”
We ask him what he’s found to be the craziest difference between what it’s like to be his age now versus the time period 20 years ago that he’s portraying, and he laughs. “I think the craziest thing is just like what they did all day. Like they didn’t have YouTube back then. They didn’t have memes to share. The video games that they had were, like, Nintendo 64 and stuff. So I genuinely don’t know what they did all day.”
But the most heartening change, he notes, is in acceptance. “I think people are a bit more open-minded now. My generation is moving on from using casual derogatory phrases.”
It’s noteworthy that Gabe doesn’t present as gay in any stereotypical way, and therefore is exempt from the kind of bullying his classmate Ian receives, something that he even joins in on, perhaps as a defense mechanism.
“His discomfort around Ian, that was very much how I felt,” Liedman says. “That was how I felt as a gay kid: a little bit in love with my friends and a real disdain for the other feminine boys. Because I just wanted that distance. I didn’t want to be lumped in with them.”
Middle school at that time was like that scene in Mean Girls, in which the high-school cafeteria transforms into the African wild and all the students go primal attacking each other—only if all those animals were more feral, rabid, and starving. When you’re questioning your sexuality and you see someone like Ian being bullied, you recognize that he is probably from your own tribe, from your same pack. But it’s survival of the fittest, and you have to let him be the prey so you don’t get taken down yourself.
What’s interesting is that, in a different world and in most any other show, it’s a more outwardly gay-coded character like Ian who would have been central to this arc, not Gabe.
“He’d have a little bow tie on and that would be the Jesse Tyler Ferguson version of the gay kid in Y2K and have a million jokes,” Liedman says. “But that wasn’t what it was like for most kids. And sadly, I think Ian would have gotten trampled at my school. I don’t know if he would have grown up so beautiful.”
It was also important to Levine that Gabe explore dating girls, as he does with Maya throughout the season, and it not be performative or in the service of masking his sexuality but because he genuinely liked her. Her gusto and her talent in drama club was attractive to him. When they dated, it was real—at least as real as dating can be among middle schoolers.
“When you’re 13 or 14 and in love with certain girls, it’s both a mix of the pressure to feel like it’s what you have to do but also… I mean I can still think of who those girls were for me and be like, yeah, of course I was in love with them,” Levine says, laughing as he recalls a specific story from his own childhood. He was dating a girl in middle school and, unlike Gabe, he actually went through with kissing her. But then he met her dad, who was so nice to him, and suddenly felt guilty. He didn’t know why, but knew that something wasn’t right about it, like he was lying.
The beauty of PEN15 is the way in which it implores viewers to have post-facto empathy for the people they grew up with. You may identify with Maya, Anna, or Gabe, but the series opens your eyes to the experiences of the other people who were in the background of your life—the kids at the other end of the cafeteria table—and what they might have been going through that you had never considered. As Liedman says, “I do think that there is a little bit of trauma in our generation.”
What rattled me most about Gabe was not necessarily the ways in which I connected with him, but in which the other boys I went to school with who have come out as gay in the 20 years since might have—boys who might have gone through a similar experience as myself and I had no idea.
“It’s surreal to discover now that I wasn’t alone in feeling those kinds of things, as a 13-year-old boy when my sister was screaming at the cute boys on TV and to also want to be screaming at them but can’t,” Levine says. “It’s that very confusing thing.”
Since season two premiered last week, Gage says he’s gotten a warm response from viewers. “A lot of people can relate to my character, especially people in the LGBT community. They can be like, ‘I relate to this kid. I was a chubby, small child in middle school who was closeted.’”
That this show in which two 33-year-old women play 13-year-old versions of themselves opposite child actors has established such a profound connection with people still astounds Liedman.
“There was a video store near my campus that no matter what you rented, this Gen X guy behind the desk would also give you free episodes of Strangers With Candy on VHS and he would be like, ‘This is what you should be watching,’” he says. “That’s what I thought PEN15 was going to be like. I thought it was going to be this completely cold, completely under-the-radar thing. I never imagined this.”