A few years ago, a Utah mom was very upset with me for writing something praising a TV show for its somewhat accurate portrayal of high school kids.
That was absolutely not true, she told me, because some of the teenagers in that series swore, drank, took drugs and had sex. And, that mom assured me, none of that EVER happened with ANYONE in the high school her children attended.
When I expressed some skepticism about her assertion, she got really upset with me.
I don’t know if reality ever caught up with that mom. I do know that she should not watch the series “Genera+ion” on HBO Max, because it might prompt her to have some sort of fatal attack.
This new high school-based series opens with a teenage girl in a mall restroom giving birth to a baby she apparently didn’t know she was carrying. And that’s relatively mild compared to other content.
It’s 2021, so these teens are on their phones all the time. And they text each other about sex. About specific sex acts. Including pictures of their, um, private parts.
(Content warning: Viewers see some of those graphic pics. That’s in addition to sexual situations — plenty of implied sex — and lots of R-rated language about sex. I cannot overstate how R-rated this show is in so many ways.)
“We drew a lot of inspiration from authenticity and real-world influence when we were writing and creating the show,” said 19-year-old Zelda Barnz, who co-created “Genera+ion” with her father, Daniel Barnz. (Daniel, Zelda and her other father, Ben Barnz, are executive producers. As is Lena Dunham of “Girls” fame.)
“She’s just out of high school and she can tell us where we’re getting it right, where we’re getting it wrong,” said Daniel Barnz.
It’s an ensemble cast, but first among equals is Chester (Justice Smith), who isn’t exaggerating when he says, “I’m, like, a lot.” He’s out, proud, pushing the limits and pushing people’s buttons. He’s an over-the-top personality hiding his insecurities; he doesn’t take any garbage from anyone; and he’s a star on the school water polo team.
“Chester is this really bold, non-apologetic personality,” Smith said. “And I feel like usually those characters are, like, side characters or foil characters in other TV shows or media.”
And there’s something kind of great about a queer kid who won’t let anyone bully him.
It’s also interesting how “Genera+ion” scripts are all over the place. The narrative flow darts here and there, sometimes returning to what you thought was the main plotline and sometimes not.
“One of the things that Zelda’s always wanting us to do with the show is to reflect the actual experience of teenagers, which sometimes is kind of random or weird,” said Daniel Barnz. “And you go off on tangents and strange things happen.”
“Genera+ion” is not a documentary — it’s designed to entertain and engage. It’s heightened reality. But the fictional teenagers wouldn’t be out of place in real Utah high schools.
My kids all went to high school in Utah, and what we see in “Genera+ion” isn’t altogether different from what they experienced. Well, what people they knew experienced, at least. (And my son and daughters observed that it was often the kids with the strictest parents who got in the most trouble.)
That said, “Genera+ion” is incredibly provocative, both for the viewers and for those who made it.
“I never had conversations like that with my parents,” said Daniel Barnz. “There was a lot of blushing going on in the writing of this show. … Because Zelda wanted to be honest about it, it allowed us to be honest, not just about what was happening in the show, but what was happening in our real lives.”
I don’t think I could have sat down and watched “Genera+ion” with my son and daughters when they were teenagers. I’m not sure I could sit down and watch it with them now without cringing in embarrassment.
But I’m absolutely certain that, as much as other parents and I wish our kids weren’t like the characters in this TV show, some of them are. Or they know kids who are. And it doesn’t do us any good to close our eyes to reality. Even if we think our kids are somehow sheltered because they go to school in Utah.
The first three episodes of “Genera+ion” start streaming on Thursday; five more will premiere one by one on successive Thursdays. The second half of the 16-episode first season will start streaming sometime later this year, according to HBO Max.
Latter-day Saints in “Genera+ion”
There’s an unexpected (and sort of odd) “Mormon” element to “Genera+ion.” In Episode 2, Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) and Riley (Chase Sui Wonders) are making the rounds of the various school clubs and stop by M.E.L.T. — Mormons Eating Lunch Together — for grilled-cheese sandwiches.
“This was totally worth the creep factor,” says Riley. “Thank you!” Nathan says to club members. “And praise the elders.” And turning to Riley, he says, “Why are Mormons always so hot?”