TV TATTLE

HBO Max's Generation makes the mistake of portraying universal teen experiences as defining generational features

  • The teen drama from Daniel Barnz and his 19-year-old daughter Zelda Barnz is "a worthwhile corrective to some assumptions that have defined most American teen stories on TV," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The default American teenager does not have to be a clean-cut white kid with a heterosexual crush, and Generation 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." VanArendonk adds. "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...But Generation is enamored with the superficial things that make these characters feel contemporary, without showing much interest in what makes them distinctive just as people. Generation 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 Generation also whiffs it on the things that are legitimately novel. The show is full of phones; my colleague Jackson McHenry described Generation as '90 percent thumbs,' and that feels exactly right. Beyond the simple mechanics of teens texting each other constantly, though, Generation 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."

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    • Generation trades depth for shock value: "A show about a loosely connected group of students at a Los Angeles high school, Generation aggressively insists on its timeliness," says Richard Lawson. "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 Generation 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 Generation’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 Generation, 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."
    • Generation tries to be too many things at once: "Lena Dunham was supposed to be the voice of her generation, and her generation had some feelings about that," says Jude Dry. "While it had its issues, Girls gave voice to a certain kind of Millennial ennui (read: mostly straight, very white) that tapped into the anxieties of a demographic that had been coddled into an extended childhood and thrust — ill-prepared and somewhat reluctantly — into adulthood during an economic recession. Dunham’s alter ego Hannah Horvath touched a lot of nerves, but even those put most on blast by her brand of neurotic entitlement couldn’t deny her particular charms: She was damn funny. A decade later, Dunham and her producing partner Jenni Konner are attempting to do for Gen Z what Girls did for Millennials. Written by father/daughter duo Daniel and Zelda Barnz (who is 19) and titled with a wink to Dunham’s early moniker, Generation follows a group of California teenagers as they explore their sexuality in an ever-shifting world. Though the cast of newcomers is inclusive of many racial identities, this particular lens of identity exploration is left mostly untouched, an oversight of the white creatives behind the project. The first four episodes provided to critics, for example, spend much more time on a biracial character’s gender expressive fashion than on how he feels about living alone with a white grandmother."
    • So much of Generation feels like this kind of deliberate, wry twist on a teen show staple: "These kids don’t sneak cigarettes under the bleachers; they steal their parents’ vape during weddings," says Caroline Framke. "They might fear social faux pas, but mostly in the form of TikTok disasters. This show’s bottle episode doesn’t unfold during detention, but during an active shooter lockdown that inspires more jaded eye rolls from its characters than real panic. And yet, despite all the trappings of being something new and different, the Gen Z teens of Generation feel … well, familiar. They’re overwhelmed by the force of their emotions, sexual urges, joys and humiliations. Their parents try and fail to understand them, while they’re too busy trying to understand themselves and each other to notice. They’re smart, oblivious, petty, rude and generous when it counts. Whether accidentally or on purpose, Generation is less of a definitive text on What It Means to Be Gen Z than it is further proof that no matter how much the times change, the basic tangle of being a teenager rarely does."
    • Generation is closer in spirt to the British teen dramedy Skins, which was also created by a father-child team: "Generation doesn't always work. It very often feels like exactly what it is, namely a show at least partly written by a teenager — Zelda was 17 when the script was picked up — with several episodes directed by someone with limited small-screen experience (Daniel's most prominent helming credit is the 2014 Jennifer Aniston-starring indie, Cake)," says Daniel Fienberg. "The result at times feels more like an assemblage of big ideas and feelings than a coherent or cohesive show, but there's enough potential in the series' embracing worldview and terrific cast to justify sticking with it."
    • Generation never feels like it’s remolding the tropes of high school to fit a new, “woke” world: "Instead it feels as if it’s creating something entirely new, presenting a likely funnier version of how (Zelda) Barnz viewed her own high school experience," says Kayla Cobb. "Because of this, characters and plot points that would traditionally encompass entire episodes or even an entire season pass by in the blink of an eye. Chester, Justice Smith’s crop top-loving openly gay lead, isn’t subjected to jeers from his peers or hang-wringing conversations about his sexuality. He knows who he is, and true to high school form, that confidence is respected, if not revered. Chester, a character who would be torn to shreds in a John Hughes film or as the tragic hero of the Gossip Girl era, is unapologetically this world’s king. Generation’s school shooting lockdown episode passes by in similarly passive tone. It wasn’t that long ago that 13 Reasons Why attempted a school shooter plot, an episode filled with as much fear and tears as you’d expect. It wasn’t until Generation‘s intentionally dull second episode that I realized this adrenaline-packed take was inherently flawed. For people who have never experienced routine school shooting drills, of course it makes sense to portray them in a way that’s terrifying. By contrast, Generation focuses more on the monotony of these drills while balancing stifling anxiety, a choice that’s terrifying on a whole other level. What sort of world are we living in that teenagers sitting around contemplating their mortality is as routine as a school dance?"
    • What sets Generation apart from its predecessors is that it's profoundly and unabashedly queer: The HBO Max series puts "its gay and bi characters at the center of its story rather than off to the side," says Esther Zuckerman, adding: "The framing device that Generation 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 Generation 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."
    • Generation is to Gen Z what something like the British version of Skins was to millennials: It's "a tapestry of the teenage high school experience, more realistic and edgy than what you can find on The CW due to its open portrayal of underage sex and drug use, but also exaggerated and more dramatic than real life ever seems to be (did I mention there is a teen in labor in the mall bathroom?)," says Jeva Lange. "For people outside of the target demographic, though, this can be exhausting to watch....But the generation in Generation is only really set apart from any other by their superior cell phones, their more progressive understanding of their sexuality, their frequent school lockdowns, and their pessimism about the future — a pessimism, I might add, that is a direct hand-me-down from millennials. I'm confident (although I've repressed the memories) that the students in Generation are no more annoying as high schoolers than we were. Still, teasing out that tension between our generations is a curious feature of the show."
    • Generation feels like it is doing too much, especially in the beginning: "The premiere introduces different characters by showing bits of the same scene from their respective points of view, filling out some backstories in the process," says Saloni Gajjar. "These characters are meant to be relatable—and maybe they are, if only Gen Z is the target audience—but the dialogue writing tends to bog down the series...The series’ relationships are all entangled, much like those in tons of other teen shows. What distinguishes Generation is its very contemporary outlook into how these young adults handle their growing pains, using the technology, slang, and freedom of expression at their disposal. This doesn’t take shape right away, but as the season unfolds, the show slowly finds its footing. Which makes the accelerated release schedule—the first half of season one consists of three episodes at its debut, followed by five more episodes spread throughout March—a particularly smart move. Generation easily falls in line with not just Euphoria but other recent, voguish teen dramas, including On My Block and Élite, whose various episodes were tied together by some form of mystery. Generation has that, too, as one of the girls (we don’t know who it is right away) unexpectedly goes into labor in a mall bathroom. The show is excessively theatrical early on (though maybe not to someone who is currently in high school)."
    • Bizarrely, despite being a show written largely by a teenager, parts of Generation read as uber-dated attempts at edginess
    • Why 19-year-old co-creator Zelda Barnz decided to put LGBTQ+ characters front and center: “We really tried to focus on queer representation and making sure that when watching our show, queer kids felt really seen,” Barnz says. “All of our queer characters, their personalities are not just about being queer. They have so much more to them than just their sexualities.”

    TOPICS: Generation, HBO Max, Daniel Barnz, Lena Dunham, Zelda Barnz




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