Each week Joe and Terry discuss the most recent episodes of HBO Max’s Genera+ion, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episodes 1-3
Episodes 1-3: ‘Pilot’, ‘Dickscovery’ and ‘Toasted’
Well Terry, we’re tackling another sure to be buzzy HBO Max series, if only because Genera+ion (pronounced “Generation”) is apt to draw plenty of comparisons to that other HBO series, Euphoria.
Let’s tackle that right off the top: yes, both series are about teenagers in California who get into shenanigans – sex and drugs – in ways that will terrify adults. But Genera+ion is far more comedic and less hyper-stylized than the Zendaya-fronted, Sam Levinson drama. Importantly, this is also a queer created text: it comes from married husbands Ben and Daniel Barnz, who co-created with their daughter Zelda (it’s also executive produced by Lena Dunham).
There’s plenty of great insight in this Hollywood Reporter piece about how the years-in-the-making series came together, but for our purposes, I’m eager to dig into this first batch of episodes. The pilot kicks off with a pretty humourous cold open as Naomi (Chloe East) discovers her unnamed friend is giving birth in a mall bathroom. Genera+ion then flashes back three months to principally focus on three characters whose paths intersect over a tumultuous 24 hour period.
Let’s begin with Chester (Justice Smith), the super confident queer boy who flaunts his waterpolo body in a dress code violating suspender/crop-top and flirts with the new guidance counsellor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). He’s an effortlessly charming, erudite and out and proud youth who floats through high school with nary a concern.
It should be noted that Justice Smith is completely magnetic in the role. He’s incredibly charismatic, infusing Chester with a cocky, sexy swagger. Chester’s comfort with his sexuality is enviable (he is literally introduced strutting through a crowd of students to Todrick Hall’s “I Like Boys”) and even when other characters whisper conspiratorially about his “queeny” mannerisms, his male water polo teammates openly accept him.
There’s an early scene when Chester describes himself to Sam as “a lot” and it’s clear that he’s boasting about his behaviour. And Chester’s not wrong…but there’s also a great deal more than you might expect from a confident extrovert who doffs his top in public for attention.
When Chester emails a “rooftopping” picture to Sam that night, his behaviour is immediately flagged as a suicide risk. And rightfully so. Chester may protest that Sam’s concern is unwarranted, but there’s a guarded distance in Chester – the way his eyes glaze over when he’s around other people, a disarming sadness in the way he looks out at the city skyline – that hints at someone who is deeply unhappy. Chester may project confidence and happiness, but it’s clearly a mask that he wears to keep others at arm’s length.
For these reasons, Chester is easily the most fascinating and complex character on the series for me.
Chester’s story intersects primarily with Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), a boy at school he flirts with via text. They connect at Riley (Chase Sui Wonders)’ house party where Chester gently reassures Nathan that his tumultuous day, which involves a fight with sister Naomi and a disastrous hook-up with her boyfriend, is just a speed bump to better things.
Nathan is a far more familiar character: closeted, Christian, sexually inexperienced and mildly neurotic. He’s surrounded by brash and bossy women, including his mother Megan (Martha Plimpton), sister and Riley (who is intriguing, but underdeveloped in this first episode). Nathan is arguably the least interesting character if only because he’s saddled with the most familiar YA conventions.
Thankfully his scenes feature the episode’s best comedic moments, including a glimpse of the Stewart family’s enormous kitchen task board, an ill-timed penis sext in Church and a cum in the eye gag that is simultaneously mortifying (for Nathan) and hilarious (for any sexually active adult who has ever handled a dick).
But Terry, I’ve rambled enough. What are your thoughts on Chester and Nathan? Do you, like me, feel that the other main character – Greta (Haley Sanchez), an out lesbian with a crush on Riley – gets the least to do? What do you think of the show’s penchant for handheld photography and close-ups? And who do you predict is the pregnant girl in the bathroom stall?!
Joe, this first episode was a treat and a half and I was immediately disarmed with the hilarious (if slightly overacted) opening with Naomi and the mystery girl in the stall. After it’s discovered that the Mystery Girl is not suffering menstrual cramps but is, in fact, giving birth, Naomi does what a lot of people do: she YouTubes how to give birth. When she shouts, “It’s one of those youtube videos where you have to watch the full ad!” I found myself unexpectedly laughing and immediately drawn into Genera+ion’s brand of humor.
What has me even more enamored is the way the episode was structured, presenting one day from multiple perspectives as it introduces each character. Not only is it fun, but it also helps keep aspects of the story surprising, twisting our expectations of what’s actually happening. For instance, when Nathan is first introduced at the party, we see him “crying” over a fish tank and Chester asks if he’s crying. “I got something in my eye,” is Nathan’s response and we take it as that clichéd thing people say to hide the fact they’re crying. So when we discover, as you mentioned above, that Nathan literally does have something in his eye and it burns it becomes a hilarious moment that also informs the characters because it’s also his sister’s boyfriend’s cum that’s burning.
Speaking of Nathan, I was absolutely floored by the giant, color-coded calendar that adorns the wall of his home. This brief scene completely establishes the kind of WASPy relationship his family has, with his mother scheduling sex with her husband with a purple dot on the calendar while Nathan and Naomi text each other things they can’t say out loud. And when their mother angrily interrupts their texts by saying, “I’m a fully formed person and you see me as a stick figure!” I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s economic storytelling that tells us everything we need to know about their fraught dynamics.
You’re absolutely right that Chester is the charismatic star of this show, so far, and the camera eats him up. Smith commands the stage so profoundly that it’s really noticeable when he’s not there. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the shy Greta who, you’re absolutely right, doesn’t get a whole lot to do this episode. The narrative purposefully keeps her life vague where even a potential confession about her seemingly out-of-the-picture mother gets interrupted by Chester flopping down in the chair. She exudes sadness, whether she’s critiquing her figure in a full length mirror or apologizing to Riley for being awkward. I want to know more about her.
Complementing the intimate look into modern teen life, creators Daniel and Zelda Barnz smartly chose Sean Porter as their cinematographer and his keen eye shows. Among other films, Porter shot Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and he brings that sense of intimacy to Genera+ion. You mentioned the close-ups and handheld photography and I think his steady eye lends an authenticity to the episode.
The way it lingers sexually over Sam, for instance, as Chester watches him wipe sweat from his brow. Or the way it impersonates Nathan, nestled in Chester’s cosy embrace on the couch, and focuses on Chester’s necklace and his fingers. Or with Greta, and the flashes of Riley’s beautiful eyes and close-ups of where Greta is looking. Without dialogue or acting, the camera gives more context and personality to the characters we’re following in each segment.
This leads us to episode 2, “Dickscovery,” which surprisingly drops the non-linear structure and character framing of the first episode in favor of more traditional storytelling. I’ll admit, I was a little taken back by this sudden shift in structure, particularly after being so pulled into the way the pilot framed the action to such exciting results. Luckily, my initial disappointment in the structure switch was quickly (and mostly) overshadowed by the fact that this semi-bottle episode tackles school lockdowns in an authentic way.
But first, the opening scene thrusts us back into the future (present?) with Naomi rushing through a grocery store to find supplies for the newborn baby. After being told babies need food, she rushes through the baby aisle and inadvertently starts a fight between two women on the merits of breastfeeding.The kinetic way these interludes unfurl is hilarious to the point that I want more of this story, if I’m being honest.
Back in the past three months earlier, we get to learn more about Arianna (Nathanya Alexander), the homophobic drug dealer with two gay dads teased in the pilot. She’s reintroduced in a car ride with her two dads in the front seat and Delilah (Lukita Maxwell) in the backseat with her. The two of them could not be different. While Arianna makes homophobic jokes, Delilah talks about how canceled JK Rowling is and frets about after school clubs, moaning, “how am I supposed to to pick between feminism, animal rights and stopping kids from killing themselves?!”
If I’m being honest, many of the characterizations so far feel very one-note, aside from Chester. Arianna is the homophobic daughter contrasted with Delilah’s staunch roots in the Social Justice Warrior mold. Nathan and Naomi used to be the closest of siblings but are drifting apart. Jack (Connor Chavez) is the “straight” boyfriend with a secret. Greta is the lovelorn lesbian.
They’re all tropes verging on caricatures at this point. I’m guessing/hoping that Genera+ion bursts these conventions as the narrative continues because by episode two, the characters, for me, are the least interesting parts.
Instead, the comedic beats like the Naomi/Mystery Girl pregnancy and a brief shot of Arianna playing a first person shooter on her phone while on a school shooting lockdown are what I’m reacting to. It’s quietly heartbreaking how normalized the lockdown is when it’s initiated during their after school club open houses. As the time stretches for hours, we hear about the news happening outside and we get reactions from the locked down teens, who cope in various ways. Arianna texts fake bawling videos to her dad while Naomi, stuck in a bathroom, practices fellatio on her lipstick to work on her gag reflex. And everyone is brought together over grotesque Dr. Pimple Popper videos (which…gross).
I’m a bit mixed on this second episode, Joe, and I’m curious if I’m alone. You mentioned how underused Greta was in the pilot, so did you like hearing a bit more about her mother’s plight? What do you think of Chester’s burgeoning friendship with Sam or the way in which Sam tries to figure out Chester’s dark musings about death and nihilism? Does his interest set off A Teacher warning bells for you? Did the humor work for you, including the “Born This Way” Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and the Mormons Eating Lunch Together (M.E.L.T.) clubs? And what did you think of Naomi’s birth marked epiphany about Jack?
Like you, Terry, I was also hoping that the structural format of the pilot would continue in subsequent episodes. In hindsight this might have felt too gimmicky, so while “Dickscovery” isn’t as innovative, I still appreciate that it’s not a completely straightforward episode. The mostly bottle episode worked for me because it trapped all of the characters together; even though there are too many of them, it’s useful to see how they all interacted with each other under duress.
Initially I was wary of the lockdown narrative. As a Canadian who has been out of school for decades, the concept is undeniably alien to me. The possibilities for conflict and tension, however, make perfect sense. What I liked most was that there was no shooter and even if it still is frightening, the students are incredibly blasé because they’ve been living under this heightened security for years.
Instead Chester’s friend just runs down a Twitter list of things they know about the shooter possibly having a duffel bag of guns…or fishing equipment. Unlike other shows like, say, Grand Army, which uses an active school shooter for dramatic fare, Genera+ion is content merely to use this terrifying prospect to create a modern twist on the familiar The Breakfast Club set-up. It’s uncomfortable in no small part because the school shooter plot line has been rendered so rote and familiar that a show like Genera+ion can use it this way.
Perhaps that’s why I’m more forgiving of the show’s broadly sketched characters. (Hosting a YA podcast has also prepared me for thinly drawn characters and sweeping stereotypes; sadly it remains a hallmark of the category).
I also dug the way that “Dickscovery” cues us about various characters’ relationships with their parents. First up: you mentioned how we learn more about Greta and her absent mother. I thought that using that absent relationship as a point of connectivity between her and Riley is clever. With this storyline, Genera+ion joins the recent TV trend to address the experience of Dreamers and undocumented immigrants, including several YA properties like Jane the Virgin and Freeform’s cancelled reboot of Party of Five.
I like that the show acknowledges that Greta’s situation isn’t ideal, but it isn’t treated like a Greek tragedy either. Greta laughs to Riley about how her mom watches The Crown like a telenovela while she’s stuck in Guadalajara, confirming that this isn’t a very special “story of the week” type situation. She is still very obviously affected by the absence, but that response varies. In episode one, Greta was reluctant to talk to her mom on the phone, but she’s a horny distracted girl who is more interested in her crush than Skyping with her mom in episode three, “Toasted”.
Similarly, we learn that Arianna’s homophobia (briefly touched on in the pilot) is an issue for her overly interested fathers. If there’s one storyline that isn’t connecting with me, it’s this character – if only because I’m worried that Genera+ion is going to give her an educational arc over the season that asks viewers to forgive her hateful ignorance.
While Arianna is obviously intended to be an unorthodox depiction of a homophobe (in spite of her immediate association with the contemporary queer experience), there’s no subtlety or redeeming aspects to this character. She’s simply rude, obtuse and misguided. That line about her comedy being “edgy”, how she hates people being “precious” and how she baits Nathan in episode three is very, very telling.
More telling is Chester’s obvious acting out as the lockdown progresses. Initially it seems as though he’s behaving the same as Arianna, ie: acting like an agent of chaotic energy. In time, however, it is revealed that he’s upset that the school’s robocalls have unnecessarily caused his elderly Nona to worry when he had planned to spare her. It’s a nice moment that harkens back to their playful banter in the kitchen when his grandmother chastises him for wearing her clothes and not washing them.
That playfulness also extends to Chester’s interactions with Sam, although you’re not wrong to raise the “uncomfortable” flag. I appreciate their humourous, candid relationship because teachers like Sam, who have the capacity to connect with people much younger than them, can be such assets to young people. At the same time, however, Sam’s refusal to shut down Chester’s obvious flirtations could easily venture into icky territory, which…I don’t wanna see.
Know what I do want more of? Ridiculous comedy, because yes, everything about the sad school clubs and Naomi’s desperate desire to hook up with Jack and his double dick worked for me. Maybe it’s the dirty old man in me, but I’m finding the juvenile silliness of the show very effective.
So yes, give me Delilah declaring “I just want raw fish all of the time” after she is revealed to be the mystery pregnant girl in the opening scene of episode three.
Give me Nathan awkwardly toasting his older sister Natalia at her wedding with the words “I think my sister is my best friend in the world. Not you Natalia. I mean, I do love you, just not as much!” before throwing himself off the ship, which is, of course, named The Flying Seaman.
Hell, I’ll even take Arianna’s dads bickering about how Megan talked through Inception and then complained that it was confusing. Because without the comedy and the musicality to add levity to the series, I think it would be too much heavy emotional labour to watch these teens struggle through issues that no one else seems to cares about.
But back to you, Terry: are you as invested as me in the little intimate moments between Riley and Greta like the Aquarium bathroom? Is there any redemption possible for a character like Arianna who kisses Nathan before commenting on his “blowjob lips”? And on a scale of 1 to “throw yourself off a yacht”, how cringey is Nathan’s inadvertent coming out experience?
Oh geez, Joe. I would absolutely throw myself off that yacht. That gloriously named yacht full of the fakest kind of people. It was awkward even before his incredibly painful coming out experience, telling the crowd of Jesus-loving rich people about his semi-awkward relationship with his sister Naomi before letting loose that he hooked up with her boyfriend.
But also, to clarify, he likes girls, as well.
I’d be ready to jump immediately. But it’s made worse by his mother who firmly tells him, “No!” when he tries to tell her it wasn’t a “funny little nothing,” but the truth. What a painful coming out moment. I just wanted to give him a hug and was thankful that Chester both gave him a slow clap at the toast and then jumped in to save him.
This last part also worked as an intriguing callback to the pilot episode, which ended with Greta at the bottom of her pool, trying to block out the world. In a way, both Nathan and Greta are on the same journey of discovery, but Nathan’s saved by Chester while Greta was left floating by herself.
“Toasted” also gave us some nice intimate moments between Greta and Riley, as you inferred above. Aquariums always feel so magical to me. They feel like the place to fall in love and Greta is smitten. But there’s a sadness to her situation, particularly as she watches Riley go off with Pablo, the aquarium employee who let them in.
But Chester sees this moment, too, and again the camera focuses on these moments to show how characters respond to new information. The moment in the bathroom, as Riley is cleaning Pablo’s cum off her shirt while talking to Greta, in particular worked incredibly well. I really want a happy ending for Greta.
After a somewhat (to me) disappointing second episode, “Toasted” really brought the goods, Joe. It was the right mix of frivolous humor and authentic representations of teenagers trying to navigate relationships and sexuality. So many moments popped for me, such as the Delilah/raw fish moment you mentioned above. Even Arianna’s statement about Nathan’s blowjob lips worked for me, particularly with his “thank you?” response.
I’m not sure how to feel about her character, though. “Toasted” opens with her panicked flight through the mall, carrying an inflated pool for Delilah’s birth. And when she bursts into the bathroom, she slips on the mess on the floor, tries to hold in her vomit and then lets loose in the sink.
Arianna yelling “Why do you hate lesbians?!” to the security guard and then, later, “I’m not paying ten cents for these” as she steals the cups (“reparations!”) showcased her humor and actor Nathanya Alexander’s comedic timing.
As a gay man, her casual homophobia is annoying, but it also feels like an act. She plays an interesting foil to Nathan and Naomi’s relationship with their parents. Nearly all of these kids are rebelling against their family so, in some ways, it’d make sense that Arianna’s rebellion would be to differentiate herself from her fathers.
It’s just annoying. Particularly because I love Nathanya’s acting and portrayal. I’m not sure how the story will redeem this character…because I know it’s going to try. She’s a complicated person, that’s for sure…but it’s not the kind of complicated I want to see.
All in all, this was an intriguing start to Genera+ion and I’m curious to see where it’s going next.
Genera+ion airs Thursdays on HBO Max