tv review

Genera+ion Wants to Be a Voice of a Generation

Chase Sui Wonders, Justice Smith, and Uly Schlesinger in Genera+ion. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO Max

In the first scene of Genera+tion, premiering its first three episodes today on HBO Max, a girl sits in a mall food court, yelling at her friend to finish up in the bathroom. The friend, moaning inside the bathroom about how bad her period is, seems to be in increasing distress until she finally has to give up the ghost and admit that what’s happening is not her period — she’s having a baby, but no one can know. Her friend freaks out and tries to cope, Googling “how to give birth,” while the girl screaming in the bathroom suggests WikiHow.

The scene cuts off abruptly in episode one and then picks up again as the beginning of the next several Genera+ion episodes, and it’s full of detail about its extreme currency. There’s the frantic Googling, and references to the several seasons of reality show I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. To distract a security guard trying to kick them out of the bathroom, one girl goes on a rant about how the guard calls it the “handicap bathroom.” That’s no longer appropriate terminology, she says, and also how does the guard define disability? How does he know who’s in the bathroom? This show is not about desperate teenagers from any old era trying to pull themselves together to deal with the most ancient crisis of human existence. This show is about now.

Everything about Genera+ion feels frantic to confirm that promise. The show is created by 19-year-old Zelda Barnz and her father Daniel Barnz, and the first four episodes provided to critics seek to translate that relationship into telling insights about teen life today. It’s darker; it’s edgier; teens grow up more quickly, and are exposed to more risk. Chester (Justice Smith) pushes against the school’s dress code in ways designed to flout gendered assumptions, and Arianna (Nathanya Alexander) posts falsely panicked videos of herself during a school lockdown in response to a gun threat so she can make her dads worry more about her. The intense experience of the high-school years is getting magnified and heightened by a world where everything feels apocalyptic, and the result is a scene like the one that kicks off Genera+ion, where a young girl has a baby in a mall food-court bathroom.

I have no doubt that Genera+ion’s central premise is correct. For all kinds of reasons, but especially because of social media and increasing economic inequality, I’m absolutely open to the idea that teenagerhood is very different than it was even a decade ago. But the elements of high-school life that the show seems so anxious to emphasize as terrifying and current are also the ones that feel most unevolved from the long history of stories about adolescence.

The 1891 Frank Wedekind play Frülings Erwachen features teenagers wrestling with secret pregnancy, suicidal feelings, same-sex attraction, and a general despairing fury that their parents cannot (and don’t want to) understand them. In 1955, there’s Rebel Without a Cause and teens alienated from their parents once again, driven to violence and desperate to push against restrictive boundaries of identity and appropriate behavior. By the ’90s, there’s national panic over a teenager who gives birth at her prom, and there’s drug use, sexuality, homophobia, school violence, and teen pregnancy on shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and My So-Called Life. By the 2000s, the Wedekind play was adapted into the wildly popular musical Spring Awakening and pronounced just as relevant as it was in 1891, and there was also Gossip Girl, The O.C., and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Genera+ion does not exist in a vacuum. Its title (with the annoying plus-sign stylization) is a reference to the specificity of this generation, but the word without the winking symbol in the middle is about these teens as the latest in the long teen lineage. It would be fine for the teens in this show to ignore that long line, but it’s less fine for the show itself to do so. It mistakes trope-y character development for trenchant generational precision — teens have been giving birth in the social equivalent of food-court restrooms since time immemorial, and in some iteration or another, characters like Chester or Greta (Haley Sanchez) or Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) have always struggled to negotiate the translation between their outward social selves and the internal identities that feel right to them. But Genera+ion is enamored with the superficial things that make these characters feel contemporary, without showing much interest in what makes them distinctive just as people. Genera+ion gives Chester, for instance, gender-bending fits and nail art that breaks the dress code. But then it forgets that clothing is not the sum total of personality.

Mistaking familiar teen stories for exciting new ones is one thing, but it’s maybe more frustrating that Genera+ion also whiffs it on the things that are legitimately novel. The show is full of phones; my colleague Jackson McHenry described Genera+ion as “90 percent thumbs,” and that feels exactly right. Beyond the simple mechanics of teens texting each other constantly, though, Genera+ion is, so far, uninterested in the emotional and social implications of all the social media and omnipresent digital connection. The particular pressures of Instagram aesthetics or making one’s life look appealing on Snapchat, the boomerang feeling of isolation that might come from seeing everyone else’s lives online all the time, issues like inescapable harassment or the warmth of found digital communities — none of that really penetrates the show’s teen life stories. There is, however, an awkward situation regarding a dick pic that’s mostly played for laughs.

The teens are mostly appealing, if thinly drawn; their parents are much emptier. Genera+ion spends the most time with Nathan’s mother, Megan, played by Martha Plimpton. She loves her kids, and she’s doing her best to roll with the times. She has gay friends. She’s trying to keep up with the lingo. But she has a gut-level resistance to the idea of her own son being gay, and she’s furious with how hard everything is, the gluten-free cupcakes and the nonbinary pronouns. Plimpton’s a treat to watch in this as she is in everything, but Genera+ion wants Megan to be a fascinating character study of the limits of what adults can understand about The Youths These Days, and instead she comes off as simplistic and unrooted. Megan feels adrift in the world and can’t understand why; the frustration is that Genera+ion doesn’t seem to know, either.

In a few ways, the show is a worthwhile corrective to some assumptions that have defined most American teen stories on TV. The default American teenager does not have to be a clean-cut white kid with a heterosexual crush, and Genera+ion joins its much more vivid predecessor Euphoria and the sweetly romantic Love, Victor in building its teenage stories on a diverse cast. The trouble is that by treating their stories as universal ones, and mistaking universal teen experiences for defining generational features, everything bleeds into everything else, one big flat world where everything smells like teen spirit, which means everything smells the same.

Genera+ion Wants to Be a Voice of a Generation