It’s fitting that Lena Dunham — a racist, homophobic child molester pretending to be a feminist — is credited as an executive producer on HBO Max’s new high school dramedy series, “Generation.” Like Dunham, the show pretends to be a lot of things it’s not. It pretends to understand the newest generation of teenagers. It pretends to be inclusive of all genders and sexualities. And perhaps most criminal of all, it pretends to be good.
The series focuses on a group of teenagers as they navigate high school and explore their sexualities in the modern world. Before diving into all of the cringe-worthy, problematic moments this show has to offer, I want to first emphasize that writing a show to celebrate progressive youth is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s so easy in arts criticism to dismiss shows that give teenagers legitimacy as “kid’s stuff,” but high schoolers genuinely have a lot of emotional nuance. The problem is the way “Generation” seeks to exploit teenagers’ experiences without understanding their complexity.
In the whimsical fantasyland of “Generation,” every student is politically informed, sassily liberal and sex-obsessed. Like many modern high school shows, “Generation” cannot comprehend that high schoolers might be doing things other than having sex or talking about having sex. Nor can it understand the difference between being sex positive and being creepy.
So much of this show’s explicit content borders on essentially grooming its target age group. In just the first episode, teenage semen is shown not once, but twice. Why? What does graphically showing a minor’s orgasm offer anyone? Is it supposed to be relatable? But, somehow, even worse, there is an actual romantic storyline brewing between the protagonist (Justice Smith, “All the Bright Places”) and his guidance counselor (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, “The Argument”). We’ll have to wait to see where that goes, but everything about it so far feels wrong.
The dialogue, which is primarily made of quippy neoliberal remarks, is painful to listen to. Buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” and “lowkey homophobic” are shoehorned into nearly every sentence. It’s a horrifying nightmarish concoction that feels like it was inspired by hours of moderate-left TikTok.
What’s truly scary about it is how the writers seem to think homophobia has disappeared with our generation, that everyone is now an educated progressive. Contrary to what “Generation” thinks, it is not just older people who are bigoted. Finding self-expression within high school is still as soul-crushing and impossible of a task as ever, and to declare it’s not is a gross misrepresentation of the ways discrimination can fester. Also, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the high school experience.
There is a scene in the show where Delilah (Lukita Maxwell, “Speechless”), the social justice warrior, calls out her physics teacher for not including non-binary people in a math equation. The students roll their eyes as if her political comments are a frequent occurrence. It’s a scene that not only plays into stereotypes of the “overly sensitive” left, but also seems to indicate what the show might think about non-binary people and sexualities outside of cisgender homo- and bisexuality. For a show that wants so desperately to capture the widening spectrum of gender, there are no good representations for anyone outside of those that are more socially accepted.
There is one single good thing about the show. His name is Justice Smith. Smith plays Chester, a flamboyant-and-proud teenager beloved by everyone in the school. Smith is fantastic. He’s funny, confident and likable enough to pull off a lot of the atrocious dialogue they feed his character. If nothing else, I hope young people identify with Chester and his admirable self-assurance.
“Generation” is certainly not the first show to exploit teenage sex, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t end up bringing in a lot of attention from younger audiences. Hell, when I was younger, I used to watch “One Tree Hill,” so I can’t be too mad about it. However, the series stands to show the inherent problem in the high school television genre: the fact that the writers are out of touch. A few shows, such as “Euphoria” and “Freaks and Geeks,” have done a terrific job at not falling into this trap, but nine times out of 10, when an older generation tries to guess at youth’s experience, the product is just painfully inauthentic.
Despite how badly it wants to be better, “Generation” continues that tradition.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Servetah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.