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‘Genera+ion’ Is Post-‘It Gets Better’ TV. That’s a Good Thing.

It’s about time we finally have a TV show willing to say gay men sometimes suck

It’s about time we have some shitty gay dads on TV. 

Genera+ion, HBO Max’s new Lena Dunham-produced teen drama about a bunch of queer kids growing up in a conservative California town, is the H&M to Euphoria’s Hot Topic. Justice Smith (The Get Down) leads the ensemble cast as Chester, the colorful queer kid who wears crop-tops to school and dies his hair pastel colors. But don’t put him in the eccentric box: He’s also on the water polo team and accepted among his classmates. 

Genera+ion showcases the post-‘It Gets Better’ era of queerness; as such, gay teens are both the bullied and the bullies. Gay-Straight Alliances aren’t depicted as the saving-grace student organization, and bisexual teen guy Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) can be both sympathized with while still being held accountable for hooking up with his sister Naomi (Chloe East)’s boyfriend. 

No two characters on Genera+ion better emphasize its view of a world in which queers can *gasp* be canceled than the two gay dads, and thankfully, they’re absolutely cringeworthy. In the second episode, Joe (J. August Richards) and Patrick (John Ross Bowie) drive their Black queer daughter Arianna (Nathanya Alexander) and her Type-A friend Delilah (Lukita Maxwell) to school. 

“You need a time-turner,” Joe says to Delilah, who feels burned by extensive extracurriculars (a time-turner is the device Hermione Granger uses in the Harry Potter franchise to shift time and make it to all of her classes). “Ya, uh, no. You can’t say that anymore,” Delilah retorts. “J.K. Rowling — transphobic! Plus, the whole queerbaiting thing.” (The queerbaiting thing is Rowling declaring Dumbledore is gay, years after introducing the character.)

Nathanya Alexander and Uly Schlesinger get to be gay and messy. That’s nuanced queer representation. Photo courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO Max

It’s a trivial scene — no one is getting “canceled” for making cultural references to Harry Potter. But the emphasis is that these are two parents behind the times with a generation who grew up internalizing accountability buzzwords — the dads’ collective queerness is simply an ancillary detail. Still, it’s rare to see un-woke gay men on screen in a TV era that hasn’t fully shaken its now-decade-long belief that visibility is the same as diversity

This simplistic view of representation has uplifted but rarely critiqued the merits of queer movies like Love, Simon and The Boys in the Band remake, as well as shows such as Transparent and Looking. Queer people can be problematic, toxic and flawed, and Genera+ion makes that abundantly clear. It’s good we’re finally seeing our messes splayed on screen, not excused. 

That’s not to say Genera+ion is a perfect show. Its first three episodes, available on streaming, are undeveloped. The series tracks the story of how one unknowingly pregnant teen ends up birthing a child in a mall bathroom, but the show is like an artsy teen’s Instagram come to life. It’s focused more on stylistic, theatrical choices over knowing exactly what it wants to say. But in this way, there’s an unintentional accuracy in showcasing today’s confused adolescents: Like most high schoolers, Genera+ion is uncertain, aestheticized and contradictory. Its dialogue is ripped straight from stan Twitter, choosing pedantic statements likely to go viral over sincere, two-sided conversations. 

Justice Smith, Haley Sanchez and Chase Sui star in the latest telling of queer, anxious California teendom. Photo courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO Max

Not surprisingly, then, the initial reviews of Genera+ion are middling.” “Genera+ion tends to get lost in gimmicky storytelling devices. It already has the comedy, but it needs to dwell more on real, heartfelt character developments to really shine,” Saloni Gajjar writes for A.V. Club. Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson preferred Euphoria to this sister-show, writing, Genera+ion is very impressed with itself, and wants us to share in that sentiment, to be wowed by its inelegant envelope pushing, even though the pushing has been done much better by other shows in just the last 18 months.”

These critics are right: Genera+ion isn’t fully formed, at least not yet. Its fifth episode especially (not yet available to audiences) takes the show in a disappointing direction. Nevertheless, I find myself defensive in the face of the many justified critiques, because it seems we hold teen shows to a higher accuracy-test than the standard adult thirtysomething comedy-drama. Comparisons to Euphoria are rampant, but just 18 months ago the consensus was largely that Euphoria isn’t quite as good as Skins. Now, though, no show is more trendy than the HBO drama that recently made Zendaya the youngest-ever Emmy winner for Best Actress in a Drama. 

Adult slice-of-life tales like Sex and the City and Emily in Paris are allowed to be unrealistic and forgiven for unlikely financial anomalies and non-linear timelines. There’s a term for it — aspirational television. But it’s rare for a teen show to be allowed to live fully in fantastical realism unless it’s a story about actual lords and ladies. Teen shows are expected to make a statement about a new generation for older, voyeuristic audiences. However, teens don’t always want to see themselves on screen — sometimes, they simply want to see the life they wish they were living.

I say this as a kid who grew up as part of the Glee generation — perhaps the embodiment of too-true adolescent TV depictions. It’s telling that Glee, one of few teen shows praised for its relatability, is perhaps the most gauche today. In trying to remain relevant over six seasons, Glee lost any entertainment or artistic value. Realism led to every episode becoming an insufferable special with contrived societal statements. 

It took time before Gossip Girl, Riverdale and Freaks and Geeks were considered the tentpole teen shows they are today. Like a promising student, Genera+ion deserves the time to figure out its identity. I just hope it doesn’t flunk out before it does so.

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