Youth culture has long been fertile ground for those producing works of art and commercial product, but it’s hard to imagine a more compelling time to explore what it means to be a teen. Between the multi-pronged implications of social media, to changing sexual mores, to the looming threat of school violence, for adults the reality of being a young person would seem to have much the same draw as science fiction, carrying with it a similar fascination with the terrain, the technology, and the language.
In recent years, HBO has embarked upon several expeditions into this territory. Faced with expanding their programming to compete with the Netflixes of the world, the premium channel has made a point of focusing on youth-focused programming. They had a big hit with Euphoria, with its boundary-pushing sex-and-drugs, elevated by an Emmy-winning performance by Zendaya. This was followed by the NYC skate-culture series Betty, and the aesthetically gorgeous, temperamentally curious Luca Guadagnino miniseries We Are Who We Are. Coming soon, we’ll be getting a 2021 take on Gossip Girl on HBO Max. Taken together, we’re starting to get a picture of what an HBO teen series looks like: stylish, moody, and endlessly fascinated with how young people are navigating this big, scary, modern world.
Into this environment steps Generation (or “Genera+ion,” as it’s being stylized, in case you’re one of those people still referring to the David Fincher head-in-a-box movie as “Se7en“), HBO Max’s new high school-set series that traffics in all the usual quirks of modern teenhood: sex, drugs, identity, queerness, social consciousness, and the general sense of kids about to set foot on the tilt-a-whirl of a world spinning off into oblivion.
The half-hour light drama comes from writer/director Daniel Barnz, who directed a teenage Beauty and the Beast riff with the 2011 film Beastly, and directed Jennifer Aniston to Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for the depression drama Cake. On the surface, neither of those projects would instill much confidence in this one, but Generation turns out to be an energetic and largely empathetic peek at its teenage characters, told from a perspective that honors its characters without treating them as either wiser or more hazardous than they are. Barnz created the series with his now-19-year-old daughter Zelda, and it’s executive produced by Lena Dunham.
The series focuses on a handful of high schoolers in Southern California’s politically conservative Orange County, which sets a stark contrast to the comfortable queerness of its teen characters. Chester (Justice Smith), a water polo star and 4.0 student who is constantly getting written up for wearing crop-tops and “pussy power” nailpolish to school, is broadly popular, contrary to the historical depiction of bullied queer teens, and has the intimidating confidence so often attributed to Gen Z. He finds the most pushback from the school’s new guidance counselor (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who clearly sees something deeper and more conflicted behind the young student’s facade, but Chester finds himself pushing back just as insistently. It’s a complicated dynamic for a complex character, and he’s only one of the show’s half-dozen or so main characters.
Greta (Haley Sanchez) is a shy Latinx girl whose mother has been deported by ICE and is being raised by her trans aunt. Greta is pining for Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), an incredibly self-possessed teen who often finds herself the eye of the others’ storms. Riley’s best friend is Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), whose coming out as bi is complicated by he and his twin sister, Naomi (Chloe East) getting involved with the same boy. Nathan is also pining for Chester, though at one point he ends up kissing Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), whose two gay dads (J. August Richards and John Ross Bowie) are best friends with Nathan and Naomi’s crisply buttoned up parents (Martha Plimpton and Sam Trammell).
The interconnectedness of the characters, the teens especially, is well sketched out, especially since for the most part the teens are no one thing. If there’s any kind of overarching Gen Z statement being made by the series, it’s the these teens are constantly shifting and queering and defying their own boundaries. Even social-justice pest Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), who comes the closest to being one-dimensional comedic relief, finds her character complicated in a flash-forward frame story. The closest comparison I can come up with for the series is the UK’s teen series Skins, although that show felt far more impressed with the button-pushing actions of its teens. Generation, perhaps due to the guiding hand of its queer teenage co-creator, seems to resist that kind of sensationalism as much as possible.
Despite dealing with subject matter that weighs heavily on teens and scares the shit out of their parents, Generation employs a light touch. At times maybe too light, as the comedy can be a bit antic at times (those flash-forward frame scenes) or unsubte (Plimpton’s typically backwards conservative mom). Still, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the lives and motivations of these teens. Justice Smith is especially compelling as Chester, playing his magnetic confidence against a back current of doubt. The show smartly gives its teen characters a kind of centralized hub in the form of a gay-straight alliance club that half of them roll their eyes at and the other half are cringingly misguided about, but it keeps them — and the guidance counselor character — in each other’s orbit.
Whether Generation will turn out to be HBO’s most relaxed exploration of the sci-fi teen terrain yet isn’t quite clear yet, but it’s off to an intriguing start, armed with an insider’s perspective on this most intimidating of landscapes.
The first three episodes of Generation premiere on HBO Max March 11th. Subsequent episodes will drop Thursdays through April 1st.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.