The Teens Are OK in HBO Max's 'Genera+ion'
The half-hour Gen Z dramedy will hook you eventually.
The hook of HBO Max's new series Genera+ion—yes, it's spelled that way—is that it's a teen show made by an actual teen. It promises an exclusive look into the wild world of Gen Z from an actual Gen Z-er, co-creator 19-year-old Zelda Barnz who pitched the show alongside her dad, the writer-director Daniel Barnz, arguably best known for the Jennifer Aniston awards vehicle Cake and Beastly, the Vanessa Hudgens take on Beauty and the Beast.
But the framing device that Genera+ion uses tells a tale as old as time. A pair of teen girls are shopping at the mall when one of them uses the bathroom. It turns out she's not just having very bad period cramps, she's actually having a baby, and she didn't know it was coming. It's a plot that could be ripped out of any old Degrassi episode, which doesn't make Genera+ion bad or unpleasant to watch. It's just maybe proof that the teen drama territory is well worn and even a new generation isn't going to change that.
Zelda, who started writing the show in earnest when she was 17, is being mentored by another "voice of a generation," Lena Dunham. You can detect Dunham's influence. Genera+ion isn't Girls Junior, but it does have some of the same playfully self-involved spirit. All of this pedigree puts a certain amount of pressure on Genera+ion to offer something groundbreaking, which it only does to an extent.
What sets Genera+ion apart from its predecessors is that it's profoundly and unabashedly queer, putting its gay and bi characters at the center of its story rather than off to the side. The show is a true ensemble piece, but at its core is Chester (Detective Pikachu's Justice Smith), the school provocateur, constantly flouting the dress code with crop tops and other daring fashion statements. He's a king on the water polo team as well. His status makes it clear this is not a world where being out makes you a pariah.
Chester is in the eye of a swirling hurricane of hormones. He develops a crush on the new gay guidance counselor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). However, Chester is being crushed on by Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), who is hooking up with the boyfriend of his twin sister Naomi (Chloe East). Their mother (Martha Plimpton) is uptight, religious, and doesn't want any of the mess they are bringing into her "perfect family." Then there's Greta (Haley Sanchez), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. She's into Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), who tries to set up Nathan and Chester. They are all friendly with Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), a princess prone to spouting offensive language which she believes she can get away with because she has gay dads.
HBO Max is releasing the first three episodes of Genera+ion—followed by two episodes each week after and one episode on April 1—which is useful, given that the pilot is frenetic, trying to introduce too many people and plots at once. But once the series gets going, it finds a pleasant rhythm. It's not as stylized as Euphoria, the HBO drama to which it will inevitably be compared, nor is it as serious or intentionally scandalous. Even at its most intense, there's a lightness to the series that makes it easy to press play on the next episode. You start to feel for these teens and their predicaments of the heart.
This brings me back to the bathroom birth flash-forward that opens every episode. It's treated as the show's driving mystery, and at the same time has an almost goofy adult Disney Channel sitcom energy to it, all pratfalls and screams. The plot isn't all that shocking, but it's treated with the blasé attitude of a TikTok. Maybe that's the true Gen Z influence on Genera+ion. It's not reinventing the wheel, it's just giving it its own frantic spin.