The landscape of television that focuses on teenagers is wide and diverse, but HBO Max’s Genera+ion is particularly alive and vibrant. While some teenage dramas swallow up their characters in heavy metaphors or dramatics, the new comedy from Zelda and Daniel Barnz celebrates the complexities of sexuality, desire, and identity with such an openness it makes you want to join the conversation. I wish Genera+ion was around when I was figuring stuff out.
Genera+ion chronicles the innerconnections of a group of teenagers living in Orange County, California. Each character is going through their own self-discoveries, but by the end of the first part of the first season, they are more like a chosen family than when the season began. We talk about what was the inspiration of Justice Smith’s Chester and how that iconic character was brought to life, as well as how many diverse projects are currently celebrating the queer experience.
There has been a lot of press about how Zelda and Daniel are father and daughter and how they brought this project to HBO, and not enough has been said about how they listen to one another and learn from one other. Zelda was adopted by Daniel and his partner, and he has such an admiration for his daughter’s ambition and experiences. The trust a parent has for their child is a personal thing, and that is extending to the creation of this wonderful series.
Awards Daily: There is a lot of queer content on television right now, particularly with younger characters. We Are Who We Are, Euphoria, It’s a Sin, Love, Victor. What do you think of all that content emerging at the same time?
Zelda Barnz: It’s super exciting and empowering. For so many years, I didn’t get to see that, especially when I was in middle school. That’s when I was realizing that I was queer and I was seeing all these stories and we are celebrating queer teenagers.
Dan Barnz: There is so much diversity within those shows. Each of them is so different and I think one of the things we were trying to do with our show is talk about the joyfulness of being a teenager as well. That hybrid of that poignant tone but the joy of being a teen. Each of the shows you mention takes a different tack.
AD: I wish I would’ve had that when I was fourteen of fifteen. The more queer stories, the better.
DB: What’s that statistic about Gen Z, Zelda?
ZB: I’m probably going to get the numbers confused but there was recently a stat that said that more members of Gen Z identify as bisexual than any other generation. It is very interesting that Gen Z has created this environment for coming out and I think that’s thanks partly to media. They are making kids more comfortable to explore their identity and not push their feelings down.
DB: There was another staggering statistic of kids part of Gen Z that don’t identify as straight. For me, I am queer but much older, and with kids these days, there’s less anxiety about labeling yourself. When I was growing up, if you said you were gay or bisexual, that’s what you were. Now people understand the concept of fluidity. Someone can come out as bisexual and then a week later, they can feel a little differently and identify as something else. That’s great.
AD: Zelda, I read that you approached your father about Genera+ion originally as a book.
AD: How did you want to ensure you kept the essence of the project when it morphed into a television series?
ZB: Mostly what I had when I went to my dad were characters but I didn’t have a lot of plot points. I knew their voices and I knew who they were, so when we started working together we started asking what we wanted the show to be about. We kept that focus on celebrating queerness. As long as we kept the diversity and the love, that was the essence we wanted to maintain.
AD: I love how every episode begins with an update of Delilah giving birth in the bathroom. Why did you want that to be the home base for every episode?
DB: Since the show was taking a candid look at teenage sexuality, we were talking about this—historically, the most feared result of teenage sexuality is pregnancy. Everyone was afraid of that and we’ve seen pregnancy with teens in shows before. We thought it would be an interesting starting point instead of something we arc out to and then see what happens after. We set it as a challenge for ourselves–what if we start with that huge fear of pregnancy? We loved that it was an engine and it was kind of a mystery and it would play as a counterpart to the episodes. You’d discover Delilah in the bathroom with Arianna and then we see the beginning of their friendship.
AD: Yeah, I really liked that.
DB: Later in the season, you know she’s giving birth and then you see her belly flopping and smoking pot. We wanted to use that as a structural element and we thought it was an interesting storyline that focused on the empowering parts of it. That storyline can bring a group of friends together and show strength and resilience even though they are way over their heads. Then it turns into a pseudo-adoption story and that was very personal to us since Zelda and her brother are adopted. We wanted to also tell a pro-adoption story that is about empowerment and about conscious decision-making.
AD: My brother and I were adopted together.
AD: When that final moment happens and each one is giving the baby a small gift, it’s very emotional. It’s very genuine and I love how the first part of the season ends on the note of this family dynamic that has been silently created between them.
DB: It’s two families being born in that moment. The chosen family and the family that will emerge once Delilah’s baby is adopted. The speech that Arianna gives in that episode about her birth parents was drawn on something that Zelda’s birth mom told us. There weren’t a lot of same-sex couples adopting at that time, and when we asked her why she chose us, she said that her best friend in high school was gay and they liked watching Will & Grace together.
AD: Let’s talk about the creation of Chester. He’s such a fantastic character and Justice Smith embodies him with such fearlessness. But he’s also vulnerable. He’s such an iconic character already.
ZB: The idea for Chester was initially inspired by a student who went to the same school as me, but he was much older. He was senior body president and a member of the Gay Straight Alliance and I remember thinking that I’m seeing all these television shows and movies where the gay kid is bullied. He is one of the most popular people at my school. He’s openly queer and I thought that was interesting. Everyone loves him and everyone is willing to rally behind him. That’s where it started and Justice played a huge role in fleshing out this complex person who is very charismatic, bold, but vulnerable. Justice told me once that in a lot of media, the deep kid is the quiet kid. There is a stereotype that people who live their lives very openly and wear their heart on their sleeve aren’t very deep.
DB: We also wanted him to be very smart and very funny. He is capable of both quoting Tosca and RuPaul; that feels very natural. Even when he goes on that dark humor rant about which group a school shooter would target, I think that’s a very smart analysis. It was exciting to work with an actor who is as versatile as Justice. There was nothing we could not write for Justice. So often in stories about queer characters, they aren’t the star athlete and they have these tortured relationships with themselves. In the pilot, his teammates are yelling things about games at school and he yells things back. He can be respected with his roommates. There’s another moment in episode three where he’s in the locker room and there are naked guys all around him and he’s just texting. We have seen so many characters who are either being bullied or dealing with forbidden desire.
AD: We’ve come a long way since Justin was dropping his books on purpose in the locker room to get another glance in Queer as Folk. Dan, I wanted to ask about directing episode seven when Chester and Sam have their confrontation at the end. As Sam is walking away from Chester, the camera turns around and it looks like Justice is chasing the camera. It’s hard to watch. How difficult was that moment to shoot?
DB: It was very involved and complex. I knew from the beginning that that sequence needed to be propulsive and I wanted it to feel like it was the move. In that scene, Chester is pushing Sam way outside of his comfort zone so it felt like it needed to be activated with the camera. This is the gift of working with actors like Justice and Nathan [Stewart-Jarrett] because we could do these long takes and when you look at the final edit, you can see we move from two or three takes. They could sustain that. We had more coverage for that scene but when we looked at cutting them together more, it felt like it undercut the emotion. Leaving it in the long takes left us relentlessly in Chester’s perspective and it’s so painful to be in there.
AD: There has been a lot press about how you’re father and daughter. What did you learn about each other while making this first season?
ZB: Oh, that’s a good question.
DB: I am dying to hear what you say.
ZB: Honestly, we were writing raunchy material but there wasn’t a lot of oversharing. It was nice to learn more about my dad’s work ethic and have him teach me his writing style. We work really well together. It’s been fun learning what my dad does. Throughout my childhood, he’d be writing the whole time and now I see what he’s been doing.
DB: Our household has been a little irreverent to begin with, but what I didn’t expect to happen that did happen was that with talking about the show, Zelda quickly understood that she needed to be honest about stuff. It created a really wonderful dynamic where we could talk about things that were happening in the show and it could open up conversations between us. It ended up being a beautiful thing. I learned when we did our first pitch for HBO—there was a table literally out of Dr. Strangelove it was so big—that Zelda was so poised. She had it. It was amazing to watch her in these moments and this whole experience has been filled with these proud dad moments. Who was this amazing creature? Can I be her when I grow up?
Genera+ion is streaming now on HBO Max. Part II debuts on June 17.