From the mid ‘00s to the early ‘10s, coming-of-age comedies starring white men or teenage boys targeted towards white men and teenage boys were a dime a dozen (and were usually in some way associated with the Judd Apatow multiverse.) Films such as Superbad, Youth in Revolt and, well, pretty much anything from the era in question that starred Michael Cera centered on the micro dramas of suburban white male adolescence almost exclusively. That isn’t to say a film like Superbad doesn’t have universal appeal or isn’t still funny—it does and is—but its lack of cast diversity and the culturally passe male “gaziness” of its cliches cannot be ignored in the year 2020.
Michael Cera-core began to feel a little stale and sketchy by the start of the last decade. Around the same time, we started getting shows such as Girls (2012), Broad City (2014) and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015). These programs—while maybe not coming-of-age stories in the traditional sense—nonetheless focused on young, clueless people attempting to square their residual little kid feelings with the cosmic seriousness and ineluctable cruelty of a grown-up world. And, as all of these shows were the brainchildren of auteurs who are women—Lena Dunham in the case of Girls, Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson with Broad City and Rachel Bloom with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—these tropes were approached from refreshing, non-aggrieved boy perspectives.
I’d be remiss not to mention the ways in which Girls specifically is terrible, though. Its depiction of New York City—one of the most diverse places on the planet—is sterile and whitewashed, a white Brooklyn media socialite’s paradise replete with gentrifying coffee shops and warehouse dance parties. Moreover, it tackles social issues with the accuracy of a Dick Cheney shotgun blast; it hits the mark every once in a while, but there’s some serious collateral damage. This mostly just speaks to Dunham’s ignorance and class privilege; she was born into Manhattan money and—despite her good intentions—will always be divorced from the problems of ordinary people.
Still, you could make a decent argument for Girls playing some part in priming relatively conservative viewers for coming-of-age stories that boast novel perspectives. Two recent examples of hit shows that fall loosely into the coming-of-age sub-genre—and whose perspectives are infinitely more valuable than Girls’—are the Hulu series Ramy and PEN15. Unlike Girls and Superbad and most American film and television, these shows’ characters and stories don’t orbit a predominately white milieu, and their success would have been inconceivable as recently as 10 years ago.
Ramy—which was renewed for a third season over the summer—stars series creator Ramy Youssef as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself. (In the show his last name is Hassan.) Ramy is an American Muslim and the show chronicles the character’s attempts at reconciling his millennial inclinations (spoiler: he has a porn addiction) with the expectations of his family and community. It’s dark, funny and whip-smart.
PEN15—which is now in its second season—is closer to a conventional coming-of-age tale. It stars series creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as their middle school alter-egos, and it’s pretty incredible that two actresses in their early 30s were able to transform into seventh-graders. It’s easy to draw comparisons between PEN15 and a show like Freaks and Geeks, but its antecedents are closer to Ghost World or golden era Wes Anderson. There are no self-reflexive “mic drop” moments in PEN15, and its leads don’t embody the obnoxious jaded teen affect viewers have come to expect from these types of narratives. PEN15 is a fly-on-the-wall comedy which candidly captures the earnestness and awkwardness of middle schoolers and their special little lives. You aren’t even rooting for the protagonists to get the guy; you mainly just want to jump inside the screen and be the first person to tell Maya and Anna that humanity, as a whole, is irredeemably terrible. Though, of course, that’s something every teenager has to discover for themselves.
PEN15 shines a light on the beauty hidden within teenaged naivete—when every day is a rollercoaster of euphoria and dejection, when heartache or a parents’ divorce feels like the most oppressive thing on the planet. It is the television equivalent of the Big Star song “Thirteen.”
Ramy and PEN15 are both unflinching in their depictions of a home life that might seem unfamiliar to white viewers. In Ramy, the titular character alternates between speaking Arabic with his family and English when he’s around friends—which is ultimately symbolic for the cultural identity crisis many second generation Americans face.
Maya—whose last name is Ishii-Peters in the show—is Japanese American, and at home her family sometimes speak to each other in Japanese. Unlike in Ramy, Maya’s identity crisis is not yet in full bloom, and this aspect of the show is not necessarily central to its plot—it’s ultimately just one more thing that makes the recusant teen feel even stranger as she starts to navigate the big kid world. But PEN15 wouldn’t be the same show without these moments—they give credence to Maya’s underdog complex, separating her from the Michael Ceras of the world. A Japanese American protagonist in a hit Hulu show is huge—especially now, when Asian American representation in mass media is still embarrassingly scant and racism towards Asian Americans in general remains a frequent blindspot in conversations surrounding racial equality.
Describing Ramy and PEN15 as novel feels like a slightly patronizing understatement—at the end of the day, this is simply great television. These shows are not the result of cynical boardroom pitch meetings or major studios attempting to satisfy their meager diversity quotas. They’re stories written and performed by actual, identifiable people, drawn from actual, identifiable life experiences—and the fact that there’s an appetite for them proves we’re tired of watching the same old shit.