There were several moments in the pilot of Generation (styled Genera+ion), HBO Max’s spunky rejoinder to HBO’s popular Euphoria, that made me laugh out loud, and not in a good way. The half-hour dramedy about free-wheeling, sexually fluid high schoolers somewhere outside Los Angeles, from the father-daughter team Daniel and Zelda Barnz and co-producer Lena Dunham, aims for slick edginess but too often devolves into strained nonsense. There’s teenage Naomi (Chloe East) moaning, in apparent seriousness, during an emergency: “titty fuck cunt nuggets, it’s not loading! Oh God, it’s one of those YouTube videos where you have to watch the whole fucking ad first!” Or dress-code flouting Chester (Justice Smith) delivering the would-be mic drop “I’m like … a lot,” to a flirtatious guidance counselor (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett).
But the one that made me literally gasp came towards the end of the pilot, when Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), tries to assuage Nathan’s (Uly Schlesinger) guilt over hooking up with his sister’s boyfriend with the line: “If I had a sister, I would literally do nothing but fuck her boyfriends.” As a person with sisters and also just as a person: um, no?
That reaction coursed throughout the four episodes made available for critics of Generation – an ambitious but muddled, often cringeworthy show that frequently mistakes shock or bluntness for subversion. The 16-part series (the second batch of eight episodes will air on HBO Max later this year) attempts to transpose the usual teen-show markers – hookups, unrequited crushes, drug experimentation, oppressive parents – to the social media and image-saturated late 2010s. The flurry of pop culture references and internet slang belie input from a real teenager; Zelda Barnz was 17 years old when the series was picked up. (Her father Daniel Barnz’s writing-directing credits include 2014 Jennifer Aniston indie Cake and Beastly). But the show’s shaky, unnecessarily Bourne-esque direction, over-reliance on “artsy” shots (multiple underwater cams) and broad strokes writing frequently undercut its ambition.
Of the four previews, the first and fourth unspool in shifting perspectives to build up tension, a hollow trick that muddies an already confusing web of characters. At the center appears to be Chester, a queer, brashly confident water polo star whose no-fucks wardrobe (tiny sunglasses, bleached hair, crop tops) overcompensates for Smith’s overacting. Chester hangs out with Riley, an aspiring photographer from a rich family, who tries to set up Nathan, reeling from his dalliance (read: Snapchat dick pics) with sister Naomi’s boyfriend, with Chester. Naomi frets about blowjobs with Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), who theatrically rebels, with consistently the most disingenuous lines, against her two fathers (John Ross Bowie and J August Richards). There is a subplot involving Nathan and Naomi’s conservative, religious parents (Martha Plimpton and Sam Trammell); and it will not be surprising that in a later episode, Plimpton’s character bemoans kids these days and their pronouns as a way of seeking attention.
Each episode opens with an in medias res gimmick: a scene set three months ahead of the rest of the first episode, that tries to wring off-kilter humor and intrigue out of a bizarre predicament in a mall food court (teens still go there, I guess?). The whole bit would be laughably obscene would the situation not be so deeply traumatic in real life.
It’s perhaps unfair but impossible not to compare Generation to Euphoria, its glittery, hyper-dramatic half-hour cousin. Both strive for relevance to today’s teens with in-your-face imagery (in Euphoria, full-frontal nudity and graphic depictions of drug addiction; in Generation, dick pics), frequent depictions of texting/sexting, and a baseline assumption of sexual and gender fluidity. But whereas Euphoria drew fans for its deceptive depth, especially the groundbreaking, organic relationship between trans teen Jules, played by Hunter Schafer, and Zendaya’s Rue, Generation rings hollow, its characters more woke-signalling pieces on a ludicrous plot board than reflections of real people.
There are a few bright spots. Haley Sanchez, as Greta, gives one of the few convincing performances as a Latina teen in a family separated by inhumane US immigration laws, jittery and consumed by her unrequited crush on Riley. It’s refreshing to see a show incorporate Gen Z staples such as text flirtations and Snapchat without much fanfare, even if said incorporation slides into grating lines. And the handling of sexual and gender fluidity as a casual, baseline assumption, rather than a major plot point, should be a standard for teen shows going forward.
But the performative over-emphasis on self-conscious progressivism, with lines that make a woke joke out of asshole behavior (“In no way am I paying 10 cents for these – reparations!” Arianna shouts while stealing cups from a lemonade stand), play like a callous shield for underdeveloped storytelling, no matter how good their intention.
I am here for young people getting an opportunity to produce their work, for casts that are diverse and more queer than not, for shows that attempt to wrangle the diffuse, confusing galaxy of screens and social media into a coherent narrative. Generation is, hopefully, a step in the right direction for representation and ambition in teen shows. Unfortunately, that’s not an excuse to treat characters with disingenuousness, nor is surface-level progress the recipe for a good watch.
Generation starts on HBO Max on 11 March with a UK date to be announced