HBO Max’s ‘Generation,’ the Gen Z Series Forcing Parents and Kids to Talk About Fisting


Early on in the HBO Max series Genera+ion, a high-school girl watches a YouTube video on how to deliver a baby as her friend, who claims to not have known she was pregnant, goes into labor in a mall bathroom. A twin brother and sister are both eager and anxious to sexually experiment with a guy… the same guy. Errant spunk shoots into someone’s eye. Dick pics are sent around. Drugs are pilfered from parents and shared. A school-shooter drill is noted for its exhausting tedium more than its trauma.

More refreshingly, the full spectrum of gender and sexual identity is claimed and celebrated, never once judged. Well, not by the kids. The parents are still struggling to catch up to the warp-speed progress that’s already been normalized by their children. As Justice Smith’s Chester, a triumph of queer confidence in his mesh crop top and nails painted to say “pussy power,” warns his out gay guidance counselor, possibly in flirtation: “I’m, like, a lot.” It almost plays as a mission statement for the show itself.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that before a minute of the series had even aired—the first three episodes premiere Thursday on HBO Max—it was already forcing uncomfortable conversations between parents and their children; a rite of passage for any generation, but arguably the first time the details surrounded specifics like these.

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“When the trailer came out, a friend texted us that he had to have a whole conversation with his child about fisting,” says Ben Barnz, one of the show’s producers. (The trailer includes an explicit joke about the sex act.) But the friend also clarified that he felt this was a good thing. “The hope is that you’re gonna be like, wow, this is crazy that I’m having this conversation— not necessarily about fisting—but that there are great conversations to be had about anything and everything that comes up on the show.”

A lived-in look into a group of Gen Z friends’ lives as they search for their own identities and, naturally, fun while navigating the ever-“woke” halls of a California high school, Genera+ion is unique in that, not only is it a family affair, its co-creator is now just 19 years old—and was only 17 when she wrote the script.

Zelda Barnz co-created the show with her father, Daniel, a filmmaker best known for the indie drama Cake, and who also happens to be Ben’s husband. If you thought the family friend’s conversation with his child about fisting might have been awkward, imagine what conceiving, scripting, and then making the series was like for the Barnz family.

“There were definitely moments when it was strange to talk about blow jobs and stuff like that with your parents, and it should be,” Zelda laughs. But she touts that Daniel and Ben were always open with her and her brother, Dashiell. “When my brother and I first started asking questions about sex, my parents were just honest with us. They didn’t want to, like, tell us made-up lies until they decided we were old enough.”

As for Genera+ion’s dual viewing experience as both educational and an absolute horror show for parents learning what, exactly, kids these days are up to, Daniel and Ben could also only laugh. “Like when our kids had a party at our house and we found out a month later that the cops showed up?” Daniel says, relaying a revelation that came up while scripting a house party episode with Zelda.

“The thing that’s interesting is that parents know what’s going on because we were children once,” Ben says. “But children think that we don’t know what’s going on. So, the hope is with this show that those can start connecting and you can actually have a conversation to say, ‘I was there, I know.’”

That connection, the bridge between two generations that, if the media is to believed, are having an increasingly hard time understanding each other, is at the crux of Genera+ion’s existence.

Because of Zelda’s involvement, and the fact that the very idea was her brainchild, the call, in this case, is coming from inside the house. The Gen Z experience is not being filtered through older, scrutinizing eyes. It’s teens living how she lived—and lives—it; the parental befuddlement that provides a parallel arc in the series is where her own parents and collaborators come in.

When the trailer came out, a friend texted us that he had to have a whole conversation with his child about fisting.

The show’s origin story could be stretched back to when Zelda was 15 and came out as queer. While at summer camp, she realized that it had been about a year since she realized she identified as queer and thought it was about time she told her parents. So she wrote a letter home, a long detailing of what she was up to at camp ending with, “Oh, by the way, I’m bisexual.”

Her gay dads were of course supportive, minus some good-natured teasing about the way she came out. But it still fundamentally changed the family dynamic. Zelda’s brother, Dashiell, had come out in the seventh grade, so they were now an entirely queer family unit. The dinner table suddenly became an irreverent salon of sorts hosting conversations on sexuality, queerness, and identity across generations. Once the “cool parents,” Daniel and Ben were now learning just how out of touch they were with the new generation.

Zelda quickly decided she wanted to write about her high-school experience and the experiences of her friends, most of whom also identify as queer, and who had yet to see themselves represented in a realistic way in culture.

“Queerness is oftentimes a big part of people’s identity, but it’s never your entire personality,” she says. “I think it’s important to have characters who have personalities and interests besides simply being queer. A lot of our characters are gay and they have 1000 other things going on, and that’s not necessarily the most interesting part of who they are.”

Because both Barnz parents are filmmakers, it didn’t seem like a leap to agree to help Zelda attempt to turn her ideas into a TV show. At first, they assumed it was going to be an education in how the business works: what pitch meetings are like, and how to handle rejection. But then things snowballed, and the series became a reality. Among other key turning points, Lena Dunham joined as executive producer.

The Girls creator and star had been talking with Daniel and Ben about collaborating for a while when they mentioned Zelda’s idea for a show about Gen Z teens told from a Gen Z perspective. Dunham wasn’t just struck by the idea, she decided to mentor Zelda. When Dunham was in the U.K. shooting HBO’s Industry, which she executive produced and directed, she invited Zelda out to live with her and work as an intern on production, shadowing her on set.

Queerness is oftentimes a big part of people’s identity, but it’s never your entire personality.

There are naturally, then, comparisons to be made between how Dunham chronicled the millennial experience and how Zelda will approach portraying Gen Z, albeit at a younger age than the characters in Girls were.

It’s hard to forget, for example, that in the Girls pilot, Dunham’s character tells her parents (while stoned), “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.” It’s a great, character-defining line, but one that had the unfortunate side effect of critics and audiences assuming that Dunham was also coronating herself, insinuating that her show was the definitive take on her generation.

“What she accomplished with Girls was a really authentic look at millennial women, and I think we are kind of trying to get a similar glimpse into queer Gen Z youth,” Zelda says. As for whether she feels any burden of responsibility, the kind of which was thrust onto Dunham, because the show is broadly called Genera+ion, she says, “We’re definitely not trying to speak for the generation. We’re just giving a little picture of, like, one part of this generation.”

Adds Daniel, “The title was to suggest that this was a show that had an inside-out perspective on Gen Z because one of its creators is Gen Z right now. The other point of the title was to suggest something about how kids these days are generating so much. They’re generating looks and identities, and there’s this sort of incredible originality.”

All the Barnzes recognize that there will be a fascination with the show’s diversity and its frank depiction of teens having sex. But there was a conscious effort to ensure that scenes of sexual intimacy did not exist to titillate, but rather to illustrate how the show’s characters are using sex to figure out who they are—and, often, look as awkward and bumbling while doing it as most real teens.

“What we want to do with this show is to evoke a feeling of what it’s like to be a teenager,” Daniel says. “Whether you are a teenager watching the show or an adult watching the show, you’ll either have the reaction of, ‘Oh yeah, that is what it feels like for me now,’ or, ‘Yeah that’s what it felt like for me then.’”

Then, hopefully, people of all generations will talk about it together… fisting or otherwise.



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