If you’re not watching Hulu’s Pen15, you’re missing out on a big-hearted sitcom that depicts American adolescence in the year 2000 with deadly, cringing accuracy. From the butt-cuts and butterfly clips to posters of Heath Ledger and two-liter bottles of Surge, there is almost no shot in the series without an incredible period detail.
But apart from the co-creator leads, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who channel their awkward younger selves, the kids are played by actual kids. One of these actors, 14-year-old Dylan Gage, gave an interview with The Daily Beast in which he pondered how people of Erskine and Konkle’s generation spent their childhoods without the social internet as it exists today: “Like they didn’t have YouTube back then,” he said. “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.”
To Gage, 2000 must seem forever ago — he hadn’t been born yet, after all — but it’s a period that can feel curiously distant even to those who lived through it. I was 15 that year, and when I read his comment, I had to wrack my brain a bit for an answer. Eventually, I put it out as an open question on Twitter, for anyone who came of age in the era captured by Pen15.
Here, for the edification of anyone Gen Z and younger, is what we remember of our turn-of-the-millennium childhoods…
Primitive Internet and Video Games
So, maybe we didn’t have TikTok, Snapchat, Fortnite and Animal Crossing. We also didn’t have “memes” as they’d be defined today, nor the platforms to make them viral. In fact, “going viral” was not really a thing. But the internet still offered many forums and chat rooms for specific interests, and we spent a good many hours exploring them (usually under a false identity). Some sites were must-visits for fun original content — the webseries Homestar Runner was taking off around then. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was essential for after-school conversations, and most likely turned millennials against phone calls as a concept.
And video games were certainly a big deal, although structured differently. For console stuff, like Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007 and Mario Kart, you needed everyone in the same place, while a PC with internet access would allow you to play something like Starcraft against people from all over. Solo gamers could get deep into stuff like Pokémon, Diablo, Zelda, Neopets, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Final Fantasy, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and The Sims. We should add that it was also a heyday of just going over to a friend’s house and watching them play a game, or suffering under the rule of an older sibling who refused to give you a turn on the controller. Them’s the breaks.
At least you had Napster, which allowed you to pirate a single Limp Bizkit track in a span of 45 minutes or so. Just hope it wasn’t a mislabeled file.
Tons and Tons of Television
The youth of the year 2000 didn’t have pocket devices to glue their gaze upon, but our parents alternately worried about and overlooked a different technological addiction: TV. Many of us lived according to programming schedules, being unable to watch our favorite shows on demand or “binge” them on a streaming app. TiVo, a gadget for recording shows as they aired, was a luxury for some — others just recall the blessed day they finally got basic cable.
But overall, it was syndication, not channel-surfing, that determined the entertainment landscape at this time. FOX would put up multiple episodes of The Simpsons each weekday evening, turning the cartoon into a touchstone. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel provided wall-to-wall children’s entertainment, while Nick at Nite introduced us to venerable older comedies for adults. MTV’s blocks of music videos — particularly the countdown Total Request Live, which aired after school let out — were essential viewing if you wanted to keep up with the culture. Comedy Central fed us a huge archive of the U.K. Whose Line Is It Anyway? — and you could catch B-movies on the Sci-Fi Channel.
As far as appointment TV, reality was on the way up: You had the first season of Survivor, and regular fixes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? MTV’s The Real World was in New Orleans, and we toured celebrity homes in Cribs. In a couple more years, American Idol would arrive. On the scripted side, South Park, Family Guy and Friends were booming, and maybe you’d catch some Will & Grace or ER if your parents had it on. Whatever movies and TV shows you were into, you committed them to memory so you could quote them with your pals later on.
In 2020, kids can kill weeks and months by scrolling through their feeds, without ever going anywhere. In 2000, our idleness was perhaps more environmentally contingent — you needed a place to loiter, and, ideally, someone to loiter with. The meeting spots included malls, parking lots, pizzerias, diners, Blockbuster Video, Starbucks, alleys, backyards and “the woods.”
Many adolescents of the time put effort into mastering skateboard tricks, and a somewhat surprising number were obsessed with rollerblading. Bikes, ridden nowhere in particular, served as an important means of both freedom and social cohesion. If you watched MTV’s Jackass, which premiered that year, you probably tried to replicate some of the dumb and dangerous stunts therein. At the bare minimum, you fought with sticks and dared each other to eat gross stuff.
Some things were the result of pure boredom, like going to war with a sibling over nothing at all. I once did a thousand jumps on a pogo stick in our driveway just to see if I could. With enough neighborhood kids, you could cook up elaborate games, secret missions, forts and water gun battles. To say nothing of Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare. How else were you supposed to make a move on your crush? No DMs to slide into.
Once you were tired of riding your Razor scooter around town, you could always regroup at someone’s house to make half a dozen prank calls to classmates and local businesses. Or go down to the basement to listen to Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP on a boombox, well out of parental earshot. But it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that millennials often looked outdoors for some kind of activity to fill their afternoons. And sometimes drugs.
Probably the best result of not having 24/7 internet access as a kid was the focus and attention you could give to real-world hobbies and interests. People in their 30s now remember reading a whole lot more, writing in journals, practicing instruments or free throws, learning elaborate games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, building models and Lego masterpieces. Some were creating their own websites.
Yes, we created content then too, even if we had no channels for sharing it: home movies, not only of Jackass-type exploits but sometimes semi-scripted narratives. Photography, painting and assorted crafts. Doodles and collages and comic books. Mix CDs. My buds and I outgrew the conventional board for the game of Risk and designed our own expanded version with 11 continents to conquer. Thought that was pretty goddamn cool, even if a five-hour session never produced a winner.
Clearly, our lives were pretty full, no matter our claims of having nothing to do — school clubs, homework, chores and first jobs took their share of youth as well. It’s just that little of this was preserved in a digital record, which to a 14-year-old today makes it appear as if we barely existed back then. The reality was, we were more or less “off the grid,” and mostly anonymous when we were on it.
Nostalgia for this period comes easily, and nobody under the age of 20 wants to hear about how things were better in the old days. It’s too common for us olds to say that we’re glad social media didn’t exist when we were going through puberty. The truth is — as a throwback like Pen15 reveals — the challenges were sometimes different, yet largely the same. But the lack of memes never slowed us down. We didn’t even know what we were missing.