Am I supposed to be watching Generation?
Why many critics might be struggling with HBO's new teen drama
My first thought after watching the premiere of HBO Max's new Gen Z drama Generation was, Wow, I never want to have kids.
My second thought involved a deeper, chilling consideration of my own mortality: For the first time, watching the latest teen show on TV, I realized I have more in common with the grown-ups in it than the kids.
I'm a younger millennial: I, too, had a cell phone in high school and stalked crushes on social media. But while I consider myself to be a digital native, I can also remember the prehistoric days of dial-up internet and VHS camcorders. Gen Z are on a whole other level: These are teens who have no memory of 9/11, much less Razr flip phones and the iPod competitor Zune. They never wore "Legalize Gay" American Apparel shirts to high school, because they were only about 5 years old when California passed Prop 8 and 12 years old when the Supreme Court made its historic ruling on same-sex marriage. We might be only a little over a decade apart in age, but even young millennials and old Gen Zers grew up in totally different worlds.
What all that means, fellow millennials, is that we're meant to feel completely alienated from Generation. This time, it isn't about us.
Sometimes stylized as "Genera+ion" (reportedly a nod to the implied et cetera of LGBTQ+, but also presumably because plus signs are having a moment), Generation follows a handful of high schoolers who live in a conservative and affluent town in southern California; the show is apparently set in or around 2019, since it takes place pre-pandemic. The first three episodes (which are all available to stream Thursday, before airing weekly after that) begin with dramatic pre-credits prologues in a mall — a teen has gone into labor in a food court bathroom — before rewinding to explore the events that led to this point. (HBO provided the first four out of eight episodes to critics). Credit for Generation's dedication to authenticity goes to the show's co-creator Zelda Barnz, who is 19, and her father, filmmaker Daniel Barnz; Lena Dunham, who knows a little something about projects intended to give a voice to a generation, produces.
Generation is to Gen Z what something like the British version of Skins was to mine: a tapestry of the teenage high school experience, more realistic and edgy than what you can find on The CW due to its open portrayal of underage sex and drug use, but also exaggerated and more dramatic than real life ever seems to be (did I mention there is a teen in labor in the mall bathroom?). For people outside of the target demographic, though, this can be exhausting to watch: "HBO Max's Generation proves teens are just as annoying as ever," reads the headline on CBR.com, while Film School Rejects complains that the series "portrays most modern teens as grating." It's true that the characters are — in the words of the gay, dress-code-violating protagonist Chester (Justice Smith) — "a lot." But the generation in Generation is only really set apart from any other by their superior cell phones, their more progressive understanding of their sexuality, their frequent school lockdowns, and their pessimism about the future — a pessimism, I might add, that is a direct hand-me-down from millennials. I'm confident (although I've repressed the memories) that the students in Generation are no more annoying as high schoolers than we were.
Still, teasing out that tension between our generations is a curious feature of the show. "That I think the show is often vile is maybe just Genera+ion doing its job," conceded Richard Lawson in his pan for Vanity Fair. "I shouldn't get it. It isn't for me."
Even Decider's Kayla Cobb, in her more positive review, admitted: "I've never felt as old as I did when I was watching Genera+ion." Hilariously, this seems to be the entire point: in one scene, the 2012 Icona Pop song "I Love It" plays in the background of a lame and stuffy wedding rehearsal dinner, with the dismissive line "you're from the '70s, but I'm a '90s b---h" a reminder of how the tables have turned now that we, the '90s b---hes, are the tedious ones.
For the most part, though, when millennials make a fuss about how annoying or grating or misguided Gen Z is, they end up embarrassing themselves; I can't think of anything as cringey as the recent attempts by my generation to dunk on the teens on TikTok. But chalk it up to the unnerving process of aging, and the realization that there are new heir presumptives to the world. Yes, critics my age will undoubtedly describe Generation as being "like" our own touchstones, Skins or Degrassi: The Next Generation or 90210, with its familiar tropes of kids struggling against their parents and teachers, succumbing to vices, navigating relationships, losing and rediscovering their way. But that's because being a teenager is a cliché. We've all been there, even if the there always looks wilder and more obnoxious when we're no longer the ones inhabiting it.
I'll be totally honest with you: I probably don't understand a good quarter of the references in Generation. Watching it, I felt about as old as the dinosaurs, whose extinction is violently described in the podcast Chester listens to on his way to school. But even as a relic from the Late Cretaceous period, of this I'm sure: kids these days are, most assuredly, alright.