After mentioning in conversation that HBO Max’s Genera+ion is among the shows I’m currently watching, a friend of mine asked me what it’s about. Good question! I only wish I could have answered it. There is no answer, at least, not a conventional one that roughly outlines its plot. Genera+ion, you see, has no plot to speak of. It’s about... teens... hanging out? It’s an exercise in paradox via externalizing characters’ identities while depriving them of interior lives? It’s a parody... of itself at least? It’s a horny-teen stopgap between Euphoria seasons that only warrants comparison to that show insofar as to demonstrate what Genera+ion is not, which is, above all else, good.
Genera+ion is terrible. Oh god is it bad. It is meandering and smug and sketched in the broadest possible lines so that its characters do not do much beyond showing up to represent their assigned identities, like dead-eyed quota fulfillments. Many of these characters, in fact, can only seem to display a single emotion from scene to scene no matter what’s going on (lucky for them, it inevitably is not much). Newly out bisexual Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) always looks like he’s about to cry, while questioning Greta (Hayley Sanchez) approaches every interaction with awkward-turtle shoulder tension and eyebrows knit. All season, she appears to have been trying to pass a kidney stone, which actually would be way more compelling than watching her tread social water. Chloe East, who plays the rare straight girl Naomi, tends to rattle off her lines with a rhythmic abandon so as to suggest she learned them phonetically and hasn’t even bothered to process the actual words that are coming out of her mouth.
If I’m being charitable—and I probably should be because this show has kept me entertained for a few weeks—Genera+ion is woefully miscast. But there isn’t an actor’s studio well-stocked or whose training is rigorous enough to save a production whose very concept is this misguided. Created by father-daughter team Daniel Barnz and Zelda Barnz, and executive produced in part by Lena Dunham, Genera+ion is founded on a notion apparent in a lot of online personal-essay writing: Identity alone is enough to make a person interesting. As if to tease out that logic, the show embodies the philosophy that says representation, and only representation, matters, not what is done with it. Ani DiFranco once sang, “Someone’s gotta be interested in how I feel just ‘cause I’m here and I’m real.” Imagine that as a show with characters that are, in fact, not real.
They’re here, though, and as mentioned previously (and incessantly on the show), they’re queer. While many of the characters express a sort of pansexuality—Chester (Justice Smith) and Riley (Chase Sui Wonders) agree at one point that hot is hot—they are fixed there, seemingly cemented in their development and self-assurance. As such, they are uber-teens. Stasis defines not only their fluidity but their arcs—characters drift in and out of romantic interest with very little tension and there are no apparent stakes ever to anything. They identify, therefore they are. Chester, apparently, knows no one in the show’s pool of friends when Riley invites him to her party at Nathan’s urging during the first episode, but by the second episode, he has fully assimilated. The show doesn’t bother with things like the mechanics of Chester’s fitting in or a concept as crucial as development—for the identity-obsessed Genera+ion, what is is.
Genera+ion seems to aspire to a comedy of manners while being unfunny and ill-mannered. It is hard to parse out just how much of this is supposed to be satirizing modern conventions and how much it is investing in reflecting them. Sure, Naomi and Nathan’s mother Megan (Martha Plimpton, who, god bless her, is really trying to sink her teeth into a steak sculpted from cardboard) is meant to be a broadly sketched adult who just doesn’t get it (“There was a time when people were just normal!” she rants re: identity at a PTA meeting), but I think you’re also supposed to interpret the ridiculous things its teens say as poignant, like when Chester explains an email he sends to his school’s new guidance counselor, Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), which includes a picture of him stories-high, hanging off a giant sign and the caption, “This is what loneliness looks like.” Sam is alarmed by what seems like a cry for help: “You said this is what loneliness looks like,” he says. “Meaning it’s fucking beautiful,” answers Chester. Agree to disagree! Delilah (Lukita Maxwell) is supposed to represent the extreme of “woke” culture, as she sounds off about a homework question about male and female students that doesn’t take nonbinary ones into consideration or the “problematic” depictions of queer-coded Disney villains, but she doesn’t seem that ridiculous in a context that is so precious about identity. Far more outlandish is Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), whose off-color remarks about her gay dads (whom she refers to as “fags” at one point) are far more “problematic” than anything out of Disney’s studio. As someone unafraid to say whatever she’s thinking, there’s something almost Trumpian about her charm, which is all the more confusing because she’s the only consistently humorous character.
The show regularly veers into madcap farce, like when Nathan comes out as bisexual during a speech for his sister’s rehearsal dinner and then jumps off the boat it’s being held on, or during a multi-episode arc in which Delilah gives birth in a mall bathroom. All of this banks on the inherent comedy in people running around and being frantic, and none of it makes a lick of sense in the broader context of the show.
A recurring Genera+ion motif involves its characters submerging themselves in a body of water, and then staring off into (wet) space while floating. What does it mean? What is in their heads? Hard to say—the closest that Genera+ion comes to a central protagonist is Chester, who is characterized by his inability to let people in. This includes the audience. His major revelations come via an anonymous chat he has with Sam on Grindr about French fries and love at first sight. If you’ve been waiting for Lena Dunham (who wrote that episode) to take on homosocial communication on Grindr, Genera+ion is for you! For the rest of the world’s population (undoubtedly its vast majority)... good luck.
Those staring underwater shots suggest a depth that the show never manifests. Its format is frequently tailored to characters who prattle on endlessly about themselves while not saying very much at all—multiple episodes feature the same storyline told from several characters’ points of view. (This includes the first one, in which Chester is effectively recruited into the group.) If Genera+ion were more dynamic or its plots developed beyond having its characters sit around and then sit around some more and then maybe getting slightly happy or slightly sad as a result of said sitting around, this formal exercise might prove illuminating. But we hardly need several angles of the same nothing. Employing this convention suggests that much like its characters, Genera+ion has nothing to say while finding itself way too interesting in the process.
“I’m, like, a lot,” says Chester, whose personality is a combination of garden-variety sass, showboating his specialness via outlandish fashion, and fun facts. Disagree! As a main character, Chester is not enough. Genera+ion’s disparate focus via shifting points of view gives it a listlessness compared to similarly ponderous, infinitely better shows like Euphoria or even their spiritual godmother, My So-Called Life. By following a protagonist so closely, those shows rather simply delivered the momentum that Genera+ion is sorely lacking.
So why can’t I stop watching Genera+ion? I’m not even the kind of person who needs to finish something I start for my own peace of mind/sense of closure. If a show or movie doesn’t speak to me directly within a few minutes, I’m out. And yet, seven episodes in, I’m still hanging on Genera+ion’s every vacant word. I think the experience is something like hate-reading an essay on the internet whose every bad decision fascinates for the wrong reasons. Genera+ion reminds me of Domino’s pizza or Indian food made in North Brooklyn—it is decidedly bad but yet full of sources of individual deliciousness that it ultimately delivers a queasy sort of satiety. In other words it’s, like, a lot, and filling is filling.