With a title like “Genera+ion,” HBO Max’s latest dramedy clearly wants to sum up the experience of being a teenager in the ‘20s. A cousin of HBO’s “Euphoria” that’s not as dark or emotionally bruising, these teen stories center daily teen life for Generation Z, including sexuality, drug use, the threat of school shootings, teen pregnancy, and all of the many horrors of social media—often cramming all of the above into single half-hour episodes. While it may not be fair to compare them directly, given this show goes for a lighter tough that’s often more comedic, Sam Levinson’s Emmy-winning program does a better job of grounding its characters. In contrast, this collaboration between director Daniel Barnz (“Cake”) and his teen daughter Zelda Barnz (who likely adds a degree of veracity to the teen dialogue that her father could only imitate) has a habit of biting off more than it can chew thematically, sometimes trying to cram as many subplots about teen life as possible into each episode. The very likable and talented young cast goes a long way to elevate some of the weak writing in these four episodes, even if they sometimes feel as let down as a teenager whose parents mean well but don’t exactly know how to help.
Every episode of “Genera+ion” sent to press opens with an unfolding child labor by a teenager in a mall bathroom. As the impending birth for a young lady who didn’t even know she was pregnant gets closer and closer, each chapter then flashes back to months earlier to chronicle the dramatic events in the lives of the friends of the young lady about to become an unexpected mother. The premiere, the strongest of the early four episodes, starts with a focus on Chester (Justice Smith), facing yet another dress code violation for the crop top he’s wearing to school when he meets a supportive and intriguing guidance counselor named Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who senses that Chester’s outgoing personality and sense of humor hide deeper loneliness. “I’m the asteroid; you’re the dinosaur,” Chester tells Sam in a later episode after he won’t accept his Instagram friend request. There’s a fascinating show within a show in just these scenes between Chester and Sam, who admits that the young man is who he wishes he was in high school.
After that introduction to Chester, the episode then flashes back again to introduce other characters, often illustrating how these dramatic moments unfold alongside one another. While one major moment is happening in one corner of a party, another is happening downstairs. Go into a party in L.A. filled with young people and find any of these stories behind every closed door seems to be the suggestion. It’s a smart set-up, illustrating how these characters intertwine while also reflecting a theme of the show in how it seeks to highlight average kids of a time in history that doesn’t feel all that average.
LGBTQ+ identity for Gen Z is the major theme of “Genera+ion” as many of the characters feel out their growing and evolving sexualities. For example, Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) hides his bisexuality from his conservative parents (Martha Plimpton & Sam Trammell). He hooks up with the boyfriend of his twin sister Naomi (a fantastic Chloe East, whose comic timing anchors many of the show’s best moments). Meanwhile, Greta (Haley Sanchez) is awkward and shy around a classmate named Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), whom she clearly has a crush on. Nathan’s family friend Arianna (Nathanya Alexander) thinks the fact that her parents are gay (J. August Richards and John Ross Bowie) means that she can get away with saying things that would get other people in trouble, and her outspoken nature both frustrates and inspires those around her.
If it sounds like a lot for one half-hour show, that’s because it is. The worst aspects of the writing on “Genera+ion” have a “Modern Teen Show Mad Libs” sensibility as if the Barnz’s started with a list of subjects and then built the show around the themes instead of starting with characters. There’s a scene where the students decide which school club to join, and the writers took a little bit from all of the options. At times, this feels conscious, as if the intent was to update the many clichés of the high school drama, almost like a “Freaks and Geeks 2021.” How has increased support for non-heterosexual identity changed the tropes of a coming-of-age teen show? “Genera+ion” often walks that line between a show that feels like it might be embracing too many coming-of-age tropes and one that’s deconstructing them for a new generation. Dramedies about teens stumbling through their lives are never going to go away. The best of them, and the best parts of “Euphoria” and “Genera+ion,” make them feel real.
That happens more often than not on this Lena Dunham production because the show has assembled a very strong young ensemble who can imbue these familiar themes with empathy and depth. Maybe it’s because Dunham knows a thing or two about casting the right people after her time on “Girls,” but it’s really what drives this program too. Smith finds just the right shade of sadness to make Chester’s confidence more interesting, without overplaying either aspect; Alexander walks off with many of her character’s scenes with a sharp sense of humor; East feels like a future star in every single scene she’s in; and the adults know when to cede the spotlight to the young characters but also ground their parts in a way that feels real, especially Plimpton and Stewart-Jarrett in the first four. There’s really not a weak link in the cast, and that goes a long way on a program like this one.
“There was a time when people were just normal,” says Plimpton’s frustrated mother in episode four. Of course, the rest of the episode (and the show in general) dismantles this statement’s facileness. The best parts of “Genera+ion” elevate the beauty of the expression of various forms of “normal,” reminding people that the definition of the word is different for everyone. [B-]