The Teens of ‘Genera+ion’ Wouldn’t Settle for the Teens in ‘Genera+ion’

Not long into the pilot of Genera+ion, the new HBO Max drama about a group of high schoolers coming into their sexual identity, Chester receives a text from a secret admirer. Nathan, a fellow classmate, is crushing hard. He’s bisexual, possibly gay—the show, to its credit, is slow to suggest simple definitions—and has taken a recent liking to Chester. “Ur crop top is cute,” he texts, but Chester doesn’t have time for games. His response will be familiar to young people fluent in the cadence of contemporary social life, a picture-perfect illustration of our ever-connected age: “Who is this,” he shoots back.

From the very beginning, Genera+tion wants us to know that it is a show about representation, a realtime portrait of what teens experience today, how they communicate, and the roads they travel to be understood. There’s a youthful literacy baked into the series that’s refreshing even when it fails to capture and sustain real meaning. What Genera+tion gets right, what it does understand, is how kids socialize—through texts and on hookup apps, by uploading selfies to Instagram, Snapchatting horny dick pics, and embarrassingly sliding into DMs.

Still, the alchemy of the show doesn’t totally coalesce in the way one hopes. Co-creator Zelda Barnz was 17 when she penned the script, along with her father Daniel Barnz, a screenwriter and director. That suggests, one assumes, first-hand insight into the world we interpret on screen. But knowing your audience, the issues teens face and how that emotional gulf is much wider than it was even a decade ago, doesn’t necessarily translate into compelling TV: Genera+ion fails to speak to its audience with any kind of full-body interiority.

Held to the standards of prestige TV, and certainly the variety of high-end drama that HBO regularly produces and that we expect from the premium cabler, Genera+ion is a disappointment. (Don’t expect any of the arthouse intensity and cinematic glitter of Euphoria, you won’t get that here.) It’s not stylistically subversive in any format. Not that it needs to be, because it is enjoyable at times, chaotic and so off the rails in that same way adolescence can be for teenagers that it does seem like it’s at least trying to have fun. But the show has a strange fetish for big-statement shock that I can’t really explain, only to say that effect seems to be a symptom of its immaturity and performative wokeness. Cumulatively, it all feels very high school, which is maybe the point.

Justice Smith (The Get Down, Detective Pickachu) plays Chester, a gay water polo star with a 4.1 GPA who has a thing for the new guidance counselor, Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). “My tolerance for giving a fuck is, like, minimal,” he tells Sam during their first meeting. Later, upset over a small matter, he declares: “I’m the asteroid, you’re the dinosaur.” Writing wise, that fetish is apparent from the jump, which is one way to make sense of the show. Past all of the cringy maximalism, that’s what Genera+ion viscerally represents: big, empty statements and a lot of nothing.

It’s not all bad nothing; some of it is sweetly satisfying. Things do happen of course, and kind of never stop happening, which is a bummer because that sort of narrative velocity suggests a lack of introspection that is so prominent in teen life. Still, the show’s moments of stoned serendipity are its finest, its most searching, rare as they are.

Thematically and tonally, the nothing-space of the show is where Barnz finds what revelation she can. In the series’ third and fifth episodes, Chester, Greta (Haley Sanchez), and Riley (Chase Sui Wonders) spend the day together, driving through Los Angeles, unmoored from their daily demands, smoking weed, sharing secrets, and visiting the aquarium, where Chester and Greta solidify their bond. It’s a savory sequence of scenes that, in a way, rivals what director Luca Guadagnino perfected with We Are Who We Are, another recent HBO coming-of-age drama about two sexually-curious American teens living on a US military base in Italy. The technique allows for space, for quiet, and for viewers to find their own meaning instead of it having it thrust onto them. That is where the show hits a creative stride, in moments of adolescent drift, when interactions, experiences, and confessions don’t feel strained or labored, when they just are.

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