Lena Dunham and the HBO Hype Machine Takes Aim at a New ‘Genera+ion’

HBO/Ringer illustration

Of all the gripes one could have with Lena Dunham, one of the most enduring is also one of the least legitimate. Since the moment she landed an HBO show at the tender age of 25, Dunham has faced charges of nepotism that quickly collapse under scrutiny. Yes, Dunham’s parents, a painter and a fine art photographer, had the resources to supply her with a private school education and a New York City upbringing. Still, they hardly had a direct line to Hollywood C-suites, nor was HBO in the habit of handing out series orders as a favor to friends.

It’s amusing, then, to see Dunham credited as an executive producer on Genera+ion, the buzzy new teen dramedy now airing on HBO Max. Dunham’s parents may not have directly assisted her own big break, but Genera+ion was cocreated by an actual father-daughter duo: Daniel Barnz, director of the 2014 awards hopeful Cake, and Zelda, a 19-year-old who, to hear the elder Barnz tell it, was encouraged to pitch her script to full-fledged networks as “an amazing teachable moment.” (Daniel’s spouse, Ben, is also a producer.) For most kids, teachable moments come in the form of summer jobs or strict curfews. When you have parents in the industry, though, things seem to work differently.

Zelda shadowed Dunham on the U.K. set of Industry, the HBO series Dunham partly directed—and another project that seamlessly combines her proven interests of sexuality and youth. As Dunham expands from making her own projects to shepherding others’, she’s starting to build a portfolio that’s both consistent and diverse. But Industry, with its finance jargon and international scope, doesn’t make for nearly as neat a handoff as Genera+ion, a show whose very name invokes Girlsmost infamous line. The parallels may come in handy. If anyone can guide Zelda Barnz through the think-piece-industrial complex or a salacious dead cat scandal, it’s Dunham.

Barnz will need the help. Like Euphoria—which shares with Genera+ion a parent company, a high school setting, and a well-connected creatorGenera+ion is designed to chase headlines, building buzz for both the show and HBO Max. Where Euphoria brought high-minded HBO into the realm of teen angst, Genera+ion bears down on Max’s nascent brand. The service is aiming to attract young, queer consumers, establishing bona fides through imports like It’s a Sin and Veneno, docuseries like The Lady and the Dale, and upcoming projects like a reboot of Gossip Girl. But even out of context, Genera+ion broadcasts its intentions loud and clear. The in medias res opening has a frantic girl scrambling to help a friend who’s barricaded herself in a mall bathroom: “Can you Google ‘how to give birth’?!”

Pregnancy aside, Genera+ion seeks to root itself in less-trodden ground for a teen show. The show’s loose framing device is a California school’s version of a Gay-Straight Alliance, a somewhat dated concept for an age group with fewer straight people than any before it. Genera+ion knows it, too; the club’s sponsor is a gym teacher who blasts “Born This Way” across the quad, a song that came out when the cast was learning long division. (TikTok is rife with in-jokes about the inherent corniness of the modern GSA.) But the lunchtime summit makes for a convenient gathering place of a varied ensemble, most of whom are just there for the free food.

Like Skins before it, Genera+ion is subjective, toggling between protagonists’ points of view the way its teenagers flip through their social media feeds. First up is Chester (Justice Smith), the flamboyant water polo player who’s living proof his cohort has a very different standard for cool than the John Hughes era. Racking up dress code violations like they’re merit badges, Chester and his authority issues meet their match in new guidance counselor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), with whom he develops a flirtatious rapport.

Genera+ion’s subplots are a mix of message and mischief, like Degrassi meets Popular. Greta (Haley Sanchez) harbors a crush while her mom fights an unlawful deportation from Mexico. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Arianna (Nathanya Alexander)—the Black adopted daughter of a same-sex couple—has become the edgiest thing a teen in 2021 can be: an alt-lite edgelord. (“How can I be a bigot? My parents are fags!”) Twins Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) and Naomi (Chloe East) end up in a twisted love triangle, catalyzed by Nathan’s coming to terms with his bisexuality.

The comparisons to Euphoria are inevitable, but they’re also instructive. With its neon hues and chaotic setpieces, Sam Levinson’s drama may be fun to watch, but it’s also as self-serious as they come. Genera+ion is more tongue-in-cheek than its creative cousin, with the bitchiness of Heathers—“It looks like prom night at conversion camp,” a new member scoffs of the central alliance—but a more relaxed visual style; hand-held shaky cam abounds. With comic actors like John Ross Bowie (Speechless) and Martha Plimpton (Younger) cast as the parents, you’re already prepared for the off-color jokes that arrive when the gang goes to a grown-up wedding: “Husbands are like horses. If you’re not riding them, they’re running off!”

Genera+ion is one of those shows that begs to be read as a broader social statement, the way Girls’ title suggested a much wider purview than its tiny slice of North Brooklyn. An entire episode is structured around a lockdown as the school investigates a potential active shooter. Kids are casually fluent in social justice, shutting down a stray Harry Potter reference in light of the author’s transphobia. But the show’s heart still feels more in its satirical side. The mall birth scene serves as a running cold open through the 16-episode season, with the main action framed as a flashback. The image of Arianna sprinting past mannequins with a fully inflated kiddie pool on her back is slapstick at its finest.

So, sure: Genera+ion has sex, and drugs, and slightly different permutations of them than previous teen series carbon-dated to their exact era. The show nevertheless feels like an assemblage of tried-and-true parts: the multiple shots where a brooding hero dives underwater in slow motion; the silly fun of getting stoned at an aquarium, a staple of bored adolescence since time immemorial. Having an actual teen in the writers’ room no doubt helps—after all, Skins was the result of a father-and-son creative team, the younger just 21 when the show first hit the air. But beneath its ultra-hip exterior, the pleasures of Genera+ion are as classic as they come, an entertaining mix of humor and high melodrama. As its executive producer can attest, speaking for your peers, and only your peers, is overrated.

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