Trying to write a show about young teens isn’t easy, especially if you end up focusing on their sexuality and not worrying about fleshing them out as characters. Unfortunately, in the three-episode premiere, Generation (stylized as Genera+ion) took the messy route without really focusing on giving enough heart.
One of my biggest critiques deals with Generation trying to be something different without fully realizing what it wants to say. Yes, I understand the world teens live in today is different from the one teens had to grow up in a couple of decades ago. However, when you really look at it, the basic narratives are similar (if not the same).
Having young teens trying to figure out their sexuality, dealing with surprise pregnancies, worrying about STDs, having a family that doesn’t understand them, wondering about the future, etc., are stories that go a long way back in media and in real-life. But I think, for some reason, Generation didn’t want to acknowledge that.
Fueled by a queer creative team (husbands Ben and Daniel Barnz along with their young queer daughter Zelda Barnz), the first three episodes of Generation seemed to focus on checking certain boxes and trying to present such decisions as groundbreaking storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the racially and sexually diverse group of characters leading this show. However, the main cast is in dire need of more than just surface-level descriptors.
The pilot episode introduced us to Chester (Justice Smith shines in the role). Chester’s out in high school. He’s one of the top students and a star water polo player. But he’s also into getting dress code violations, which he isn’t worried about. Having watched the first three episodes, I have no idea what his narrative struggle is supposed to be.
He does become attracted to a queer guidance counselor. And if trying to hook up with his adult guidance counselor is the cliche struggle Chester will be getting as the episodes continue, I don’t want it!
Then there’s Riley (Chase Sui Wonders) who… I have no idea what her motivation as a character in a comedy-drama is supposed to be. All I know is she likes taking pictures and might have claustrophobia.
Coming to the third main character, we have Greta (Haley Sanchez). Her mother got deported so she and her younger brother are living with their aunt Ana (transgender actress and filmmaker Nava Mau). Greta has a crush on Riley and feels she’s invisible to other people.
We also have the twins Naomi (Chloe East) and Nathan (Uly Schlesinger). For a show that has queer creatives behind it, I was disappointed at how Generation introduced Nathan as a bisexual character who hooks up with his sister’s boyfriend, named Jack, in secret. Can we please let such a problematic bisexual trope go extinct?
From what I can tell, unfortunately, the only reason the creative team (like so many shows out there) decided to make Nathan bisexual is so they can use his sexuality as an excuse to make him play all sides and be an emotional mess.
And Nathan is an emotional mess. He willingly hooks up with Jack and proceeds to cry and make the situation about his feelings when Naomi, understandably, decides to stop talking to him (Take note: she figures out what’s been going on herself. Nathan doesn’t tell her).
Nathan also makes his elder sister’s wedding day about him because he, while high, decides to come out as bisexual in front of his family and then proceeds to jump off the boat because he’s a drama queen and doesn’t feel accepted (his mother doesn’t want a bisexual son, from what I can tell).
Anyway, bisexuals be crazy. Sigh!
The other two characters are Delilah (Lukita Maxwell) and Arianna (Nathanya Alexander). Delilah is the type of character who likes to start arguments in class because a Mathematics or Physics textbook didn’t mention the existence of nonbinary kids in a question. She’s also the one who’s is quick to state J.K. Rolwing being against the transgender community and how Shawn Mendes has said racist things. Delilah’s also giving birth in a bathroom at a local mall.
Arianna has two dads. However, she’s all about “edgy” humor and hates queer men being feminine. She justifies her opinions as not being homophobic because she has two dads. It’s weird.
Also, our young main cast is supposed to be living in a conservative community (a term used in the show’s promotional materials), and yet, in the three episodes, none of them are bullied at high school for being queer or for not adhering to “conservative” ideals. In my opinion, the narrative gave me nothing. After finishing the three episodes, I was like, “Why am I supposed to care about these teens? What are the stakes supposed to be?”
In a sense, Generation seems to be interested in offering the public a show where young teens are all about hooking up without allowing them to be actual characters. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but even though Sex Education on Netflix is also a show about teens exploring their sexualities, the writers still give you fully fleshed-out young characters (even if I don’t like certain narrative choices). There has to be more to a show’s main group of characters than simply having them wondering about getting laid or getting high all the time.
Another thing that did Generation no favors happens to be the reliance on dialogue that comes across as inauthentic. If any TV show writer is reading this, please consider taking my advice.
When writing stories involving teenagers, always remember that long Twitter threads and Tumblr posts don’t always depict real-life. People feel more comfortable trolling or saying stuff online compared to how they would act when having a conversation with someone face-to-face. That’s an important thing to realize about social media.
Furthermore, many teens (and many adults, too), use social media as a place where they can express a different side to their multi-layered personality. A fanfic writer might be making some bold choices in their stories, but you might be surprised to see them being quite shy in the outside world. The point is, a person is more than just what they decide to post on social media accounts.
Being a show about teens living in today’s world, I do feel Generation failed to explore that side of social media even though the three episodes had a lot of texting and mobile-use going on. Also, where was the online bullying and harassment? FOMO? Where’s the perspective of a teen who falls on the asexual spectrum or is saving themselves for marriage while growing up with sexually-charged media content around them?
Or perhaps a well-written narrative perspective showcasing the often ignored stories of disabled young folk and their struggles with sexuality?
For a show meant to be a look at the current batch of teenagers, in my opinion, Generation decided to opt for creating weird (and cringeworthy) moments for the main cast, forcing them to say a lot of stuff out loud, instead of exploring the subtle complexities that exist in the experiences of racially and sexually diverse teenagers.
Maybe things will get better in the upcoming episodes? I don’t have high hopes, though.
The first three episodes (around 30-minutes each) of Generation were released on HBO Max on March 11, 2021.
From what I know, the first season is eight episodes long. Two episodes will be released each week. And then we’ll get a one-episode finale.
Feel free to share your thoughts with us.
Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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