Every new teen drama wants to be the one that actually, finally Gets It. They can range from the extremely earnest (see “Degrassi,” “Dawson’s Creek”) to the flashy and forbidden (see “Gossip Girl,” “Euphoria”), but all strive to capture that vulnerable slice of life between childhood and adulthood when everything burns a little too bright, a little too quickly.
“Generation” — aka “Genera+ion,” with a plus sign instead of a plain ol’ “t” as a nod to the + in LGBTQ+ — is TV’s latest stab at honestly portraying teenagers. Premiering March 11 on HBO Max, the series at least has the distinction of being co-created by a particularly unusual team: Zelda Barnz, a teenager herself at 19, and her father, Daniel Barnz, who also directs. Together, they’ve made a frenetic show about Gen Z that aims for something between Gen X’s “Freaks and Geeks” and millennial cornerstone “Skins,” though without the shaggy charm and piercing twists that respectively made those series so compelling. “Generation,” though, is undeniably strongest when telling straightforward stories of teen angst and heartbreak — which are, as it turns out, timeless.
“Generation” follows a group of Southern California misfits teetering on the edge of being truly cool. The resident hotshot jock is Chester (Justice Smith), an enigmatic queer kid who keeps defying the dress code with flashy crop tops. As his discerning new guidance counselor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) quickly surmises, Chester is just as charismatic as he is lonely. Still, as Sam also admits later in a lovely little scene, Chester is also the defiant jolt of queer lightning that Sam always wanted to be in high school before embracing a safer respectability.
There are other themes at play in “Generation,” but the difference between Gen Z Chester and millennial Sam’s queer experiences defines the show’s driving force. Most of the central cast of characters, for one, identify as LGBTQ+. There’s Greta (Haley Sanchez), an introvert who nurses a shy but obvious crush on magnetic photographer Riley (Chase Sui Wonders). Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) is very happy to lean into his bisexuality — at least until he gets caught sexting the guy who’s dating his best friend and twin sister, Naomi (Chloe East, channeling co-producer Lena Dunham’s most famous character with a series of self-absorbed tics). Meanwhile, their family friend Arianna (a disarmingly blunt Nathanya Alexander) identifies as straight to an almost performative degree, as if to directly challenge her well-meaning dads (J. August Richards and John Ross Bowie).
The purposefully wide spectrum of sexuality represented on “Generation” is a narrative asset, but it’s maybe most notable for how little interest the show displays in having the teens question their sexualities at all. By the time we meet them, they might not know exactly who they are, but they do know exactly who they want.
The only real agonizing over their identities, in fact, belongs to their parents. Nathan and Naomi’s mother, Megan (Martha Plimpton), for instance, has a small meltdown when she finds out the truth about her beloved son. While she undoubtedly would have reacted badly had Naomi been the bisexual twin, making it Nathan complicates her feelings even further. After all, as Arianna’s fathers say with a dismissive laugh, most people assume bisexual men are just gay men testing the waters. Once it’s clear that Nathan has no problem drooling over any hot person regardless of gender, Megan can barely process it. A mother losing her composure over her child’s sexuality isn’t unfamiliar territory and indeed, might feel too typical in “Generation” were she not embodied by Plimpton (who’s always very fun to watch spiraling into chaos). But making it a bisexual teen boy, a rare character for TV to take on explicitly, sets “Generation” apart.
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. 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.