Features and Columns · TV

‘Genera+ion’ Does Gen Z Dirty

Despite it having an appropriately aged showrunner, this coming-of-age series portrays most modern teens as grating.
Justice Smith Generation Hbo Max
By  · Published on March 8th, 2021

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the Lena Dunham-produced HBO Max series Generation.

It’s the prerogative of every generation to think that every other generation is worse than they are. This is a generalization, of course, but so are the persistent loose categorizations that lead to accusations of millennials killing the housing industry and zoomers staring at TikTok while the world burns around them. The HBO Max coming-of-age series Generation (styled as Genera+ion) trades in these generalizations for a biting, cringe-inducingly specific look at modern youth through the eyes of a real teenager: nineteen-year-old series writer and co-creator Zelda Barnz.

Barnz co-created the show with one of her fathers, Daniel Barnz, who also directed and co-wrote three of the four episodes available for review. Her other father, Ben Barnz, is an executive producer alongside Girls creator Lena Dunham. According to interviews with the two showrunners, the youngest Barnz conceptualized the series as an attempt to portray her world with authenticity, “not filtered through the lens of adults.” The result so far is a deeply uneven and sure-to-be polarizing series with few bright spots.

Generation follows a sprawling group of teenagers whose perspectives interlock in a Rashomon-style presentation of multiple narratives. There’s shy Greta (Haley Sanchez), who lives with her aunt after being separated from her mother and who harbors a crush on free-spirited photographer Riley (Chase Sui Wonders). Twins Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) and Naomi (Chloe East) are uncomfortably close — like sharing a love interest close. Arianna (Nathanya Alexander) is a stoner and on-and-off mean girl who cites her two gay dads as the reason she can’t be problematic. Then there’s radical Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), the series’ most cartoonish character, whose introduction comes in the form of a parody-like rant about the exclusion of non-binary students in a theoretical math problem.

If there is a main character, it’s Justice Smith’s flamboyant, popular, anxiety-driven Chester, and the show is at its best by far when focused squarely on him. In the first episode, he tells the school’s new guidance counselor, Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) that he can be “a lot,” and he says it like a promise, not an apology.

Each character in the series seems to be holding an internal life separate from their projected image, but while several are thinly written so far, Chester’s feels authentic and complex, threaded through with unapologetic defiance and a deep need to be understood. He has a crush on Sam, propelled by their shared yet very different experiences as Black queer men, but the counselor is, so far, the image of professionalism. Nonetheless, their conversations are appropriately loaded, crackling with ever-shifting energy thanks to Smith’s all-in performance and Stewart-Jarrett’s layered but perfectly understated response.

It becomes clear early on that the writing team behind Generation isn’t quite up to the task of bringing so many diverse intersections of identity to life. Bizarrely, despite being a show written largely by a teenager, parts of Generation read as uber-dated attempts at edginess. One character even calls bisexuality “confusing” and feeds into the stereotype that the label is just a gateway to gay.

Nathanya Alexander does a great job inhabiting Arianna, but the character’s status as a wealthy bigot is at odds with her Black identity, and the contradiction, never sufficiently addressed, comes across like a bad joke. “My comedy’s edgy, okay?” she says, after feigning crisis during a school lockdown. Meanwhile, real and important ideas like enthusiastic consent, gender identity, and the double-edged sword of cancel culture are reworked into half-jokes and rambling monologues that sound like they were written by incredulous adults, undercutting the show’s by-teens, for-teens premise.

The most resonant works of art portraying Gen Z so far — from the excruciatingly realistic film Eighth Grade to HBO’s own hyper-stylized series Euphoria — have a through-line of sincere empathy for the emotional experiences of modern teens. With the exception of a few key characters, Generation seems to buy into the idea that those same teens are pretty stupid.

The series’ grating, almost unwatchable opening scene is a perfect example. In it, a teenager who didn’t realize she was pregnant goes into labor in a mall bathroom, while her friend outside the door watches a YouTube video about how to deliver a baby and laments missing a Sephora sale. The series flashes forward to this scenario at the beginning of each episode, setting a farcical, ridiculous tone that the series can’t quite shake.

The difference between the borderline-unbearable writing that some characters receive and the sensitive storytelling that others are granted is stark. Smith’s riveting performance is such a bright spot that it’s almost possible to ignore every other messy element in exchange for witnessing Chester’s turbulent, unique coming-of-age.

In the series’ best scene to date, he gets ready for school — adorned in the fashionable, eclectic clothes that he wears like armor — while Britney Spears’ “Lucky” plays in the background. The song cuts out briefly, replaced by a radio report on the gruesome long-term human effects of global warming, which Chester listens to, unblinking and anxious, before switching back to Britney. If audiences could point to a moment in the series that lives up to its promise of capturing Gen Z in all its complexity, it’s that one. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep in a series that otherwise largely fails to live up to its potential.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)