Late in the premiere episode of the new HBO Max dramedy Generation, high school classmates Chester (Justice Smith) and Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) are cuddling together at the end of a very tough day for the latter. Chester promises Nathan that he’ll never feel this bad again, but Nathan is too distracted or drunk to hear the pep talk. “Will you remind me tomorrow?” he asks Chester. “It sounds like something I’d want to remember.”
Like a lot of things teenagers say both in real life and on TV, the conversation teeters on a knife’s edge between profundity and hollowness. Everything feels magnified for these kids — every pain the worst imaginable, every insight incredibly deep — until it’s quickly forgotten in favor of the next moment that feels like the Biggest Thing of All Time.
But is Generation(*) as a whole something you’ll want to remember tomorrow?
(*) The official title is actually Genera+ion, an apparent reference to the + at the end of LGBTQ+ on a show where many of the characters are queer. Among other problems, the typography makes the show a search engine nightmare. At press time, a search of HBO Max for both “Generation” and “Genera+ion” does not yield results that include the series’ trailer. (It only appears if you stop typing after “Genera.”)
The series is produced by Girls creator Lena Dunham, who once upon a time rankled people for (among other things) having her character declare herself “the voice of my generation — or, at least, a voice of a generation.” Here, she’s using her juice with HBO to help a new voice of a generation: Zelda Barnz, who co-wrote the initial Generation script when she was 17. The story is inspired in part by her coming out to her two fathers, one of whom is the show’s other creator and chief director, Daniel Barnz.
Generation has elements in common with recent teen series like Euphoria (which also films in Southern California) and Grand Army (which also has an early episode built around a school lockdown), but aims more for comedy than either of the recent standard-bearers for scripted teen angst. Its results on that end are mixed, though, and the series tends to be most effective when it’s being sincere rather than snarky.
Like too many recent shows, Generation uses a fractured chronology. Each episode opens with a flash-forward storyline set three months after the events at the start of the main plot. Two of the four episodes critics received for review, including the premiere, offer several characters their own POV segment, then rewind to show overlapping events from a new perspective again and again(*). In the premiere, those replays help to establish the core characters, while underlining a thematic point about how everyone is the star of their own story and can be oblivious to what is happening right next to them. But the later episode designed that way never really earns the out-of-sequence approach. And without some much-needed context, the framing device of each episode — set in and around an accessible bathroom in a shopping mall — is too frantic to be as funny as it’s meant to be.
(*) The closest structural analogue is a relatively obscure one: Boomtown, a short-lived 2002 NBC cop drama from future Justified creator Graham Yost.
The most important component of a teen show, though, is simply matching the right actors to the right characters and making them feel real and appealing. And Generation nails that part of the job with its cast of mostly young and unknown actors. Smith was already the lead in Netflix’s The Get Down (and of Detective Pikachu), but this feels like a real breakout role for him as Chester, who’s both a star jock (the school is big on water polo) and an openly queer kid who is far hungrier for attention than his cocky demeanor suggests. But everyone feels specific almost instantly, including Schlesinger and Chloe East as siblings Nathan and Naomi, whose tight bond can seem unhealthy; Chase Sui Wonders as Riley, a photographer comfortable moving in every social circle; Haley Sanchez as Greta, a shy girl with a transparent crush on Riley; Lukita Maxwell as the hyperwoke (to the point of self-parody, but the show recognizes this) Delilah; and Nathanya Alexander as Arianna, whose two dads seem like stand-ins for Daniel Barnz and his partner.
Generation is comfortable just following the kids around and letting them exist. It’s a bit more uneven when things get plottier or when the focus shifts to the grown-ups. As you might expect from a show created by a teenager and her middle-aged father, the conflict between the generations is a crucial theme. Nathan Stewart Jarrett is appealingly laid-back and sly as the school’s new guidance counselor Sam, who has to fend off Chester’s many transparent advances while trying to get through to a student in need of his professional help. Sam also seems envious of some of the freedoms Chester has that he didn’t at the same age. On the flip side, Nathan and Naomi’s mother Megan — played by Martha Plimpton, who at the Running on Empty stage of her career would have been great as one of the teens on a show like this — is a caricature of a willfully clueless parent, who resents those same freedoms that Sam admires. “I’m sorry,” she vents at one point while talking about how kids get to identify themselves in so many ways today, “but there was a time when people were just normal.” Despite Plimpton’s best efforts, Megan comes across as a straw-man villain for other characters to knock down: There’s a running gag in one episode about how she doesn’t understand Fight Club except as a movie where Brad Pitt is often shirtless, at one point asking, “Why is Edward Norton punching himself?”
Generation arrives at a moment when TV has no shortage of shows about, as Megan sarcastically describes it, “this secret life of teenagers’ hoo-hah.” It’s lighter than some of its peers, but still self-conscious. Like Chester, it wants so hard to seem relaxed that at times it seems anything but. Still, there’s promise here. If Zelda Barnz isn’t the voice of her generation, she definitely has a voice. And that’s a start.
The first three episodes of Generation are streaming now on HBO Max. Two more episodes apiece will be released on March 18th and 25th, followed by one on April 1st. The remaining eight episodes of Season One will debut later this year.