“Genera+ion” centers queer characters but recycles teenage tropes

Chester joins Nathan and Riley. Photo by Warrick Page via HBO

By Sonia Rubeck
Boston University News Service 

Only a few weeks into the semester, Chester, played by Justice Smith, an enigmatic queer teen, star student and water polo king has already racked up enough dress code violations to send him to the school’s new guidance counselor, Sam, played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, with whom he quickly becomes enamored. 

Chester does not apologize for his rainbow-striped crop top, plaid pants, floral choker and razor-thin sunglasses. Instead, he tells Sam, “I’m, like, a lot.”

“Genera+ion,” the most recent teen dramedy from HBO Max that follows teens as they navigate sexuality, identity and their own political awareness, premiered on March 11. The first eight episodes of the season finished airing on April 1 and the latter half of the season will be released later this year. 

The show debuts at a time when teen-centric stories are being told in shows like “Euphoria” and “We Are Who We Are.” However, “Genera+ion” is the first of its kind to be told by an actual teen. Zelda Barnz, the daughter of co-creator Daniel Barnz, is 19 years old and first wrote the show’s script while in high school.  

Barnz ends a Gen Z sensibility. The show is rife with social media references and much of the communication between teens happens over text, Snapchat or Instagram. 

While the language is updated, Barnz’s influence does address any ideas that are necessarily specific to this generation. Similar shows are more stylized and explore darker themes like addiction and mental health, “Genera+ion” keeps it lighter and leans on more chaotic storylines like an unexpected birth in a mall bathroom and a messy game of truth dare in a roadside motel. 

However, the show does little to redefine a generation or hit upon novel storylines. Instead, it revisits teen pregnancy, exploring sexuality and dramatic high schoolers that swing between self-obsession and self-loathing without adding anything new to the conversation.   

“Genera+ion” is stylized as “Genera+ion” with the plus sign referencing the LGBTQ+ acronym. As such, LGBTQ+ representation is a highlight of the show. 

The majority of the ensemble cast is queer. In addition to the confident but lonely Chester, there is Greta, played by Haley Sanchez, a shy but grounded introvert with a crush on an effortlessly cool artist, Riley, played by Chase Sui Wonders. Played by Uly Schlesinger, Nathan fights over a shared love interest with his twin Naomi, played by Chloe East, and struggles with his mother’s denial of his bisexuality.

The show also follows several supporting characters. Ariana, played by Nathanya Alexander, is an off-and-on mean girl who has a problematic sense of humor but cites her two dads as an excuse for her sharp comments. Delilah, played by Lukita Maxwell, is a parody of a hyper-woke teen who argues with teachers over the lack of non-binary representation in theoretical math problems.

While queerness is a central theme in the show, other identities are sparsely acknowledged. For a show that boasts such a diverse ensemble, it spends a lot of time on its wealthy, white characters while allowing less room for the intersections of race to come through, likely due to the show’s white writers and producers.

Nathan and Naomi’s personal lives are given the most attention as their wealthy, white family cracks under Nathan’s public coming out. This family dynamic is less interesting than the show’s other storylines. 

For example, Chester’s experiences as a queer student of color and his loneliness despite his popularity are only hinted at in conversations with Sam. Similarly, Ariana and Delilah mainly provide comedic relief.  

Each character has a certain charm, but the show’s best moments center on Chester, Greta and Riley. Smith’s portrayal of Chester is a bright spot in the show as he shuttles between the character’s unabashed self-confidence and anxious need for attention. Sanchez and Wonders are newer to the world of acting. However, they are magnetic together as their budding romance progresses. 

The generational conflict between high schoolers and adults is a central theme, a nod to the father-daughter co-creators whose real-life queer family dynamic spawned the early ideas for the show. 

GSA kids gather by the bus. (Warrick Page/HBO)

While the teens of the show are not exactly agonizing about their sexuality or identities, the adults in their lives certainly do. Some are well-meaning like Sam, who looks to genuinely connect to teens and applauds Chester for being defiant and outspoken. Others, like the conservative mother of twins Nathan and Naomi, become a caricature of a clueless parent as she yearns for “a time when people were just normal.” 

Much attention is paid to Nathan and Naomi’s mother, Megan, and little to any other adults. Chester lives with his grandmother after his mother died of cancer, Greta’s mother was deported, leaving her care-free aunt to take on a guardian role and Ariana seems to love to torment her two fathers by saying intentionally homophobic and provocative comments. These dynamics are worth more screen time, but they are given little attention compared to Megan and her willfully obtuse conclusions about her children. 

The show tries to show that parents, not unlike their children, are still trying to figure things out. However, it ultimately falls short in adequately showing the generational tensions between teens and adults. 

Drawing mixed reviews among viewers and critics for the realism of its characters, the show has been forced to contend with authenticity in a way that its predecessors like “Gossip Girl” or “The O.C.” did not. In these past shows, queer characters have been reduced to punchlines or erased altogether. As more and more shows have failed to create well-rounded queer characters, there is a greater appetite for ones that do not submit to stereotypes.

Every new teen show wants to be the one that gets it right and realistically portrays the vulnerable and messy time between childhood and adulthood. “Genera+ion” is no different. While it falls short in offering a corrective lens through which to observe teens today, it is fun to watch the frenetic cast of queer high schoolers that, like earlier generations, drift, fumble and rejoice through adolescence. 

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