HBO Max’s ‘Genera+ion’ Is a Teenage Nightmare | #socialmedia | #children

The new HBO Max series Genera+ion (streaming March 11) was co-created by Zelda Barnz, a Los Angeles teenager who is, presumably, speaking from experience. So while I found the series grating and occasionally appalling, I must remind myself that I am not just outside the show’s target demographic, but also terribly out of sync, as someone 20 years older, with one of its chief creative minds. Perhaps that disconnect is just too vast to bridge; I may never understand Genera+ion as it is meant to be understood. That I think the show is often vile is maybe just Genera+ion doing its job. I shouldn’t get it. It isn’t for me. Maybe I should just avoid all its elder-triggering booby traps and go watch Bosch instead.

Then again: Genera+ion’s other co-creator is Zelda’s father, Daniel Barnz, a full adult who directed the Jennifer Aniston film Cake and the Vanessa Hudgens film Beastly, among other projects. In that sense, the series is up for some critical debate by those of us cursed to be born before the Internet was in every home, a smart phone glued to every hand. We have standing, maybe. 

A show about a loosely connected group of students at a Los Angeles high school, Genera+ion aggressively insists on its timeliness. This is a series full of social media mishaps, social justice discourse, teenage horniness splayed across the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is, with its all-encompassing title, an attempt (I think) at broad survey, though conscious of its limits as a series about sophisticated kids in a wealthy metropolis that has become the locus of American zeitgeist and digital culture. 

Yet for every needling at a core truth of the Gen Z (Zillennial?) experience, there is at least one wild yaw into comedy, either barbed satire laden with ornate Kevin Williamson-esque dialogue, or outright slapstick. It’s never quite clear how seriously Genera+ion wants us to take it. Plenty of series about young people in America have melded pathos with humor, from My So-Called Life to Freaks and Geeks to Dear White People. Even Genera+ion’s obvious sibling series, HBO’s Euphoria, adds some mordant levity to its swirly, addled diorama of youth in internal revolt. Teenagehood is after all partly defined by shame and embarrassment, the hilarious kind and the devastating, and any series about that era of our lives should, in some way, include both.  

But the mix is all wrong on Genera+ion, which juggles tone with more confusion than verve. The kids on the series are precocious messes, painfully aware of the compromises and dissatisfactions of living in the world but still erratic and clumsy, greedy and selfish, the way many adolescents are. In the hands of the Barnzes, though, these teens are mostly monsters for whom sympathy is demanded simply because of their age. They banter and monologue in strained exposition, speaking in pitch-meeting language rather than any recognizable vernacular of their age.  In all its tortured talk, the show seems to suggest that no decent kid exists now—it is only these golems of ego and imagined guile, so plugged into the world that they are bored of it before they’ve really experienced it. An exhausting nihilism fuels Genera+ion, which grafts the preening, lukewarm snark of Gossip Girl onto the bracing pseudo-realism of Larry Clark’s Kids.

The most engaging, and sympathetic, character is Greta, played with delicate observation by Haley Sanchez. Greta’s mom has been deported to Guadalajara, leaving Greta to navigate her awkward years without her mother’s stabilizing presence. Greta has a crush on a girl at school, Riley, a rebellious artist who purposefully got herself bounced from a tony private academy. She’s played by Chase Sui Wonders, who matches Sanchez’s realism even as she’s forced to dole out line after line of beyond-her-years pretension. Their scenes together are welcome respites, complicated and natural and intimate in a way I think this show is also trying to be elsewhere.

It fails in every other area. Justice Smith, late of Netflix’s The Get Down and the compelling lead of Detective Pikachu, plays Chester, a queer kid whose stock in trade is shock. Chester is forever running afoul of school administration for wearing revealing outfits. He sasses his concerned guidance counselor (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who once played a wayward teen himself on the British series Misfits) with lines like, “I love me a good savior complex, but you’re really pushing it.” I get that his insouciance is the point, and that it masks a pain that’s ham-handledly teased out in the second episode. But Chester is just an arch TV creation meant to be rounded by detail—he is, to confound the binary squares in the audience, a star on the water polo team—who remains a caricature, a mascot of the show’s supposed daring trotted out proudly and then left to flounder. 

He’s joined by Uly Schlessinger as bisexual Nathan, who is carrying on a secret sexting affair with the boyfriend of his sister, Naomi (Chloe East). Nathan and Naomi’s sibling bond does develop some nuanced shades by the end of episode four, but otherwise they are as at-sea as poor Chester, stuck shrieking out dumbly provocative lines and getting into debasing sexual escapades that speak little to actual adolescent desire and much more to the prurient, commercial interests of whichever grownups green-lit this show. The warring siblings are presided over by a Type-A mom, Martha Plimpton’s Megan, whose cartoonish fluster constantly undermines the faint tinges of credibility managed by Schelssinger and East. (That’s no fault of Plimpton’s, mind you—she is as reliably tart and engaging as ever. She’s just been handed a bad task.) 

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