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Whether it was the proliferation of penises or Zendaya’s Emmy-winning sublimity, HBO’s Euphoria generated so much media attention that it will be hard to find any review — including this one — of corporate stablemate Generation that doesn’t link the two shows.
That the new HBO Max half-hour hails from a father-child team — Zelda and Daniel Barnz — and boasts an occasionally zany tone while tackling serious topics and themes actually makes it closer in spirit to British dramedy Skins (which aired from 2007 to 2013 and is now available on Hulu).
AIR DATE Mar 11, 2021
Generation doesn’t always work. It very often feels like exactly what it is, namely a show at least partly written by a teenager — Zelda was 17 when the script was picked up — with several episodes directed by someone with limited small-screen experience (Daniel’s most prominent helming credit is the 2014 Jennifer Aniston-starring indie, Cake). The result at times feels more like an assemblage of big ideas and feelings than a coherent or cohesive show, but there’s enough potential in the series’ embracing worldview and terrific cast to justify sticking with it.
Generation (which counts Lena Dunham among producers) revolves around a group of high school students and a few of their parents living in a conservative Anywhere, California. Depending on the moment, the heroes could be siblings Naomi (Chloe East) and Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), bickering believably and exploring their respective sexualities far from the watch of their devout Christian parents (Martha Plimpton and Sam Trammell); Chester (Justice Smith), a restless water polo player whose risqué fashion choices are the catalyst for a complicated relationship with his new guidance counselor (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett); daring photographer Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), who hails from a wealthy family; nervous Greta (Haley Sanchez), whose domestic life is interestingly unsettled; Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), who rebels performatively against the progressive values of her dads (John Ross Bowie and J. August Richards); or liberal Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), she of exhausting rants about problematic Disney movies and math problems.
At some point, Plimpton’s character crusades about pronouns and sexual definitions and accuses the kids of being desperate for attention; her wrongness about everything is illustrated via a story about how she didn’t understand the plot of Inception. I’m pretty sure only the adults here are trying to define any of the characters, because while some of the kids are gay, some are straight and some are bisexual — couplings and uncouplings steer much of the plot — they exist in a world of peers that’s relaxed about any kind of sexuality.
Some of that openness comes from a life of full exposure on social media. Make that social media, locker rooms and everywhere else, because while Generation doesn’t aspire to Euphoria levels of full-frontal male nudity, it’s not far off. The show’s just less desperate to make you count or write articles about them. If both Generation and Euphoria depict teens doing drugs or having sex, Generation is more comfortable with it and less determined to scare you to death.
Of the four episodes sent to critics, the first and fourth use a rotating perspective, à la Pulp Fiction, to withhold certain pieces of information in the hopes of building up to reveals. It’s inconsistently applied and doesn’t work in either episode; the impression left is one of flimsy sleight-of-hand rather than any raising of narrative stakes. The second and third episodes unfold more traditionally in their portrayal of events like a possible-school-shooting lockdown (Netflix’s Grand Army shouldn’t be ignored among comparisons) and a fraught wedding party on a yacht. There are directorial tics and contrivances, an over-reliance on genre-standard visuals like shots of characters sinking hauntingly underwater or on-the-nose soundtrack choices that undermine a semi-subtle moment with lyrics that say exactly what the scene is about.
More successful is the reverse cliffhanger structure that has the first few minutes of each episode offering glimpses of a situation involving several main characters and something wild happening in a mall-food-court bathroom months in the future. I don’t usually love in medias res openings, but this framing device gives each half-hour an immediate charge.
Holding everything together is the cast. Smith, probably the best known of the “teens,” is easily the standout. Queued up for stardom with Netflix’s The Get Down, he finally fulfills those high expectations in this performance. He’s equal parts flashy and sensitive and, like the show itself, profoundly comfortable in his skin, especially in scenes bantering with Stewart-Jarrett.
There’s palpable give-and-take energy throughout the young ensemble and even the performances that don’t instantly mesh — Sanchez is maybe more naturalistic than the show around her, while Alexander’s character demands to annoy you — are still good vehicles for the clever dialogue. The parents are used smartly and sparingly — a couple of one-liners or notes of compassion, and out.
The writing and acting in Generation are superior to the directing, and that’s why some people will likely compare the show unfavorably to Euphoria. At times, Euphoria almost felt like a 21st century Reefer Madness to me, but it was so visually stunning, and aggressively poetic, that it gave the impression it was more fully formed than it actually was. With Dunham’s name attached here and with Zelda Barnz’s age sure to spawn bitterness (and amazement), there may not be a willingness to give Generation time to settle into itself — something it certainly deserves the chance to do.
Cast: Nathanya Alexander, Chloe East, Nava Mau, Lukita Maxwell, Haley Sanchez, Uly Schlesinger, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Chase Sui Wonders with Justice Smith and Martha Plimpton
Creators: Zelda Barnz & Daniel Barnz
Episodes premiere Thursdays on HBO Max starting March 11.
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