The opening of each of the first episodes of “Generation” is cringe comedy at its spikiest. A teen has locked herself in the bathroom of a shiny department store where, moaning and screaming, she goes into labor, while another girl, outside the door, unaware her friend was pregnant to begin with, is Googling how to deliver a baby and things a new mother will need. It’s in-your-face, it’s disturbing, and, in a dark and uncomfortable way, it is comic, a suburban farce that John Hughes never saw coming.
But HBO Max’s new half-hour show, which premieres March 11, is not here to ridicule or judge the kids. It’s an affectionate, self-aware, and, obviously, edgy portrait of high schoolers, with questions of gender, sexuality, and sex in the foreground. It recalls “Euphoria,” HBO’s grim take on teen drug and sexual abuse, as its characters dabble in wild activities under their unsuspecting parents’ noses — almost literally, as two of the central characters, siblings Naomi and Nathan, text each other while sitting in the kitchen with their mother. There are moments in “Generation” when you can feel the writers doing some hipper-than-thou flexing, but more often the show, created by Daniel Barnz and his 18-year-old daughter, Zelda, is an astute drama-comedy featuring well-drawn characters.
In the four episodes made available for review, the narrative is carefully crafted, with flashbacks and, almost in the manner of “The Affair,” the same events shown from different characters’ points of view. Some segments zero in on particular teens in the ensemble, but we also see them all together as their friendships tighten. Naomi (Chloe East) and Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) are in sync, until Naomi learns — in a way that still makes me laugh — that her brother failed to tell her he’s bisexual. He is forming a bond with Chester (Justice Smith), the confident, intensely self-aware gay classmate whose penchant for gender non-binary clothing repeatedly gets him into trouble with school officials. Arianna (Nathanya Alexander) is the Black daughter of white gay dads, and she somehow feels she has the freedom to make homophobic comments. And there are a few others, too, all played by relative unknowns, a nice infusion of freshness.
Of them all, Chester stands out, largely thanks to Smith’s layered performance. He is the classic out-and-proud kid, and his brilliance and wit are stunning; but depression and terminal cynicism always lurk just below the surface. He bonds with the new school counselor, Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who sees both the potential and the brokenness. With characters like Chester and Nathan, who is trying to become more comfortable with his sexuality, the show is at its best, leaning into their specificity. For this reason, I dislike the title — which, by the way, HBO Max stylizes as “Genera+ion.” The name implies that the show is a big statement about Gen Z, rather than the stories of these exact kids.
The adults certainly aren’t the focus of the show, but Sam has some prominence as he leads an LGBTQ club that many of the characters attend. In episode two, the club is meeting when a school lockdown is announced, leading more to yawns than panic. Nathan and Naomi’s mother, Megan, also gets some attention in episode four. That’s a good thing, because she is beautifully played by Martha Plimpton, who does some memorable acting in the role. Megan has learned that her son is bisexual, but she really doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s sick and tired of the triggers, sensitivities, and gender questions of all the kids. During a dinner scene with Arianna’s gay dads, her suppressed anger keeps bubbling up, and she comes off something like a Norman Lear character, part Maude, part Archie Bunker. She’s not the only one who doesn’t honor Nathan’s bisexuality; the gay dads, too, think it’s a stop on the way to gay.
I remember how intrepid “My So-Called Life” seemed back in 1994. Unlike most teen dramas of the time, it was defined by its honesty, by its hard psychological and social issues, and by affording depth to young characters generally given superficial treatment. By today’s standards, though, it seems innocent and even evasive. Times have changed, TV has changed, and teens have changed, and more explicit and unsettling shows like “Generation,” “Euphoria,” and even “Sex Education” have become the thought-provoking standard.
Starring: Justice Smith, Nathanya Alexander, Chloe East, Nava Mau, Lukita Maxwell, Haley Sanchez, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Martha Plimpton, Chase Sui Wonders, Uly Schlesinger
On: HBO Max. Premieres March 11.