"I'm like, a lot," Chester (Justice Smith) cautions in the first episode of Genera+ion. It almost comes off as meta commentary, as it could probably serve as a tagline for the HBO Max teen dramedy, a show about Gen Z that relishes in the fact that it is very much about Gen Z. In other words, it's unabashedly extra in all the right ways, and entirely charming for it.
Premiering March 11 on HBO Max, Genera+ion is the latest series to center around a group of teens making their way through high school and navigating the drama that naturally comes along with those years of life. It's also the latest attempt at a "real" portrayal of teenhood, putting it much more in line with shows like Euphoria and Freaks and Geeks than with something like Riverdale, and Genera+ion is especially interested in how its group of young people navigate everything from sexuality to technology to familial relationships. The first episode previews all of those concepts as it takes its time introducing us to all the characters throughout the course of one day, replaying the same scenes from different perspectives to show how their worlds intersect.
There is, of course, Chester, the proudly queer and proudly unknowable water polo star, and Greta (Haley Sanchez), a young lesbian whose mom has just been deported. There's Greta's crush, Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), an enigmatically cool photographer, and Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), the girl who won't hesitate to explain why Harry Potter is problematic. There are the rich twins, Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) and Naomi (Chloe East), who find themselves at odds after they hook up with the same guy, and Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), a provocateur who thinks she's allowed to make offensive gay jokes because she has two dads. It's a big cast, but the show mostly manages to balance them all, and over the four episodes made available for review, Genera+ion sketches out their stories with tenderness, care, and humor.
Co-created by father-daughter duo Daniel and Zelda Barnz, who actually is 19 and therefore in the demographic the show is spotlighting, it's unique in its commentary on Gen Z. It's full of tons of cultural touchstones that will feel familiar to anyone growing up during this weird era -- one episode takes place during an active shooter lockdown that the characters approach with the nonchalance of people who have been there, done that plenty of times: "You know some sophomore in Orange literally became TikTok famous during lockdown?" -- and it has no interest in taking cheap jabs at its teens just for being young. It would rather talk about the generational gaps between millennials and zoomers, and between zoomers and their parents, which produces many of its most interesting moments.
In the excellent fourth episode, which turns the focus on Nathan and Naomi's mom, Megan (Martha Plimpton, pitch-perfect), in the days after she learns about Nathan's bisexuality, Genera+ion really begins to unpack what separates Gen X and Gen Z. Parents struggling to cope with their kids' identities is not a new concept, but the image of Nathan as a bi kid who has 100% accepted his sexuality is. He doesn't struggle with it, he likes whoever he likes, something he makes clear several times over, and he doesn't even struggle with his mom's lack of understanding, or the flippant tone Arianna's dads take when they remark that most gay men come out as bisexual first. He's angry about the way Megan dismisses this fundamental part of who he is as just a phase, or something he's doing for attention. "I know my son," she declares, and the look on Nathan's face says it all: No, she doesn't, but he certainly knows himself.
Among the young cast, Smith is the stand-out. He's a pleasure to watch as Chester, imbuing his character with a uniquely teenage mix of confident insecurity and eating up every scene he's in. Sure, Chester defies the typical queer kid TV stereotype by being a popular jock, but Smith is careful not to let him only be a gimmick. As Chester continually stretches the limits of the dress code (think crop tops, dog collars, nails that say "pussy power") just to land himself in the office of his new guidance counselor, Sam (a warmly understated Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Smith plays Chester's side of their curious connection with searching depth. He's drawn to Sam, the only Black queer adult in his life, and they have an implicit connection based on an understanding that can only come from shared life experience.
While Chester interprets their relationship as sexual and openly flirts with Sam every chance he gets, the older, wiser Sam instantly sees Chester for the anxious boy he really is. Chester's too shaken by his façade being peeled back against his will to take counseling seriously, but Sam notices the potential in him and keeps pushing, at one point telling him, "You are who I wish I was in high school." Chester can't yet comprehend the enormity of his own feelings, and has no idea how to interact with another LGBTQ+ person who's been exactly where he's been, just without the freedom afforded by time that allows Chester to express himself in the way he does. The difference between the queer millennial experience and the queer Gen Z experience is a knotty issue not often explored, and Genera+ion handles it with thoughtfulness.
It's also frequently funny and, yes, incredibly over-the-top. The dramatics often have a Girls-ian sensibility (Lena Dunham is a co-executive producer on Genera+ion, so that tracks), like the plot line where one character whose identity I won't spoil here has an I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant moment in a mall, or Chester saving Nathan from drowning after he jumps off the side of a boat to spare himself the embarrassment after coming out. Some of the big swings work better than others -- I'm still trying to figure out where, exactly, Arianna's character is going -- but ultimately, this is a show willing to make audacious moves in the name of those brightly burning teenage emotions, and it usually pulls them off.
There's so much going on in Genera+ion, and episodes can fly by in a disorienting flurry of loud colors and pop music, but it knows what it is and what it wants to say. Sometimes it's just figuring out how to get there, kind of like the teens at its center.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
Genera+ion premieres Thursday, Mar. 11 on HBO Max with the first three episodes of Season 1. Two new episodes will be released Mar. 18 and 25, and the finale will air Apr. 1.