We weren’t ready for Genera+ion.
The new drama, debuting March 11 on HBO Max, focuses on a group of horny, queer high schoolers attending a middle-class school in Anaheim, California amid the current culture of gun violence, LGBTQ advances, racial strife and gender deconstruction. The flamboyant Chester (Justice Smith) crushes on his new guidance counselor. Siblings Naomi & Nathan (Chloe East & Uly Schlesinger) realize they’re dating the same guy. The sexually fluid Ariana (Nathanya Alexander) rages against systemic racism and homophobia while telling off-color jokes, and Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), is having some very weird trouble in the bathroom. Meanwhile, the parents of this new generation struggle to understand how their own, progressive-minded breeding became outdated.
Call it a family affair: Genera+ion is the brainchild of a real-life queer family. Daniel Barnz, the director of indie films such as Cake and Phoebe in Wonderland, co-created the show with his real-life husband Ben Barnz, and their 19-year-old bisexual daughter Zelda. Genera+ion reflects both Zelda’s experiences as a queer teen, and Daniel & Ben’s life as gay parents.
With our head still spinning from the frank sexual adventures of the Genera+ion kids, and the confoundment of their parents, we snagged time to sit down with the family that started it all. Genera+ion comes to HBO Max March 11.
Zelda, as I understand it, the show started with you. Therefore, so shall I. So did you set out to make a show about teenagers hooking up?
Zelda Barnz: I think at first, ultimately, I really wanted to see myself and people that I care about represented accurately and authentically on screen. Initially, I’d just planned to write this as a book. I usually take a lot of my writing projects to my parents just because they’re very smart people. They’re both writers. So it’s been helpful to have that kind of mentorship in my family.
ZB: This was the same. I brought the idea to my parents hoping for guidance and help in developing characters and plot. My parents were just like why don’t we try writing this as a TV show. So we took that approach. Initially, I was like, I don’t know how to write a script. So, my dad, Daniel taught me how to write a script. And it was born from there.
Daniel, Ben, how do you reach when your daughter comes to you and says she wants to do a show about teens hooking up?
Ben Barnz: She came to us with this idea when she was 15.
Oh wow. That had to be an interesting conversation.
BB: Yes. It was interesting, but it was also coming out of a lot of other conversations. Zelda had come out as bisexual. Our son had come out. So we became a fully queer household, and both our kids were talking about what it meant to be queer in high school. They were educating us. So there was a lot of laughter around our dinner table conversations. I think that the show organically stemmed from those conversations. It was also it was an opportunity to work on a show together. Yes, it was going to get sensitive and weird and awkward, but it was also going to be something to allow us to open up as a family.
You juxtapose all this hooking up and sexual exploration with a birth…which sort of signals that these kids may seem more mature, worldly or hypersexualized…but they are still kids, complete with naivete and dumb choices. Was there a conscious effort to portray this kind of contradiction—that the kids of the story are both worldly and yet ignorant?
BB: I can’t remember where the idea came from originally. What I do remember is that when we decided to make a show that took a frank look at sexuality and identity, and we were thinking about components of that, we realized that, historically, the greatest fear attached to teen sexuality is pregnancy. That’s like the worst thing that could happen. So we thought let’s start there and subvert expectations.
It’s interesting to see the show in the context of your family. Zelda, the character of Ariana in the show has two dads. You also have a queer brother. I think people will wonder how closely you identify with Ana, or if you and your brother ever fought over a boy…
ZB: That’s so funny. My brother jokes about that a lot. Currently, I have a girlfriend, but in the past I’ve dated boys. My brother, every time I talk to a boy, jokes “Watch out, I might steal him from you.” But it’s never actually happened.
ZB: In terms of Ariana, I love her character. I think the things we really have in common are an irreverent sense of humor, gay dads and adopted. Other than that, I wouldn’t say we have too much in common. We had a lot of fun writing for that character—her dialogue where she gets complicated with her humor were fun comedy beats.
The other question that will come out of this—Ben and Daniel, this is to you—do you have a gigantic wall calendar where you block your days for sex weeks in advance, like Megan’s character?
Daniel Barnz: Oh God.
Ben Barnz: We don’t do that!
[Ben gives a guilty look. Laughter.]
DB: I’m so relieved to answer honestly. No, there is no big whiteboard with a schedule on our wall at all.
That’s a relief. I mention it, because one of my favorite characters is Megan, Nathan & Naomi’s mom. First, thank you for giving Martha Plimpton a good part. She’s always great.
Ditto Mary Birdsong and J. August Richards. We have to say their names; they’re bloody talented. But Megan is such a funny character. In a sense, her story anchors the entire show. She’s the voice of a good-meaning person that just doesn’t understand the younger generation. Ben & Daniel, how much do you empathize with her?
BB: Don’t answer that, Zelda.
DB: You know, I think what Martha does so brilliantly with the role is that she presents the humanity and confusion that underlies that character. Even though the character says and does some difficult things we personally find problematic, I think Martha’s always looking for the humanity and humor. One truth about her character is that she has a hard time understanding…she has a line about the kids “It’s all a trend. They just say these things.”
DB: That’s not something Ben & I feel, but it is something I see in parents of our age: that slight dismissiveness of teenagers and journeys to figure out who they are. Parents want to write it off, particularly if it becomes threatening. So other than a shared love of margaritas, I’m not sure there’s a lot that we share that’s similar.
BB: She’s a few years behind us. The thing that this was born out of—what Daniel said already—our kids were coming home with language and terms that were new to us. So though different from us, that’s what she struggles with.
Interesting. “The Queer Generation Gap,” for lack of a better term, is something that keeps coming up in recent series and films. One thing I haven’t noticed in the first few episodes is any kind of homophobia to the characters. Was there a conscious decision to eschew homophobia in school?
ZB: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t want to make this show another show about queer kids getting bullied. Ultimately, I feel like that has been done, and it’s not something I want to watch. But also, I would say the homophobia I encountered in high school was much more passionless than homophobia in a lot of shows.
Passionless, how’s that?
ZB: It’s not as much about teens getting beat up in the hallways, it’s a lot of straight boys saying the f-slur or using “gay” as a casual insult…things that are horrible and make you feel awful, but kids, in my experience, weren’t going to come after me for being bi. And when I mentioned I was bi, a lot of people were like “Threesome?” I felt very fetishized, which is gross. So the difficulties I experienced weren’t quite the same as in shows where kids were outwardly bullied.
Interesting. What I felt about all the characters in this—Chester, Nathan, Naomi, Ariana, Gretta—and indeed, what impressed me the most about the show is the idea that everyone is reaching for identity. What I mean by that is that so much of their rebellious behavior and rage at older generations is kind of a way to clear space and fill a void at the same time. Zelda, as the teenager in this conversation, is it a way of asking “who am I?”
ZB: I see that as a search for freedom, for independence in a way. And yes, identity too. Up until you’re around a teen’s age, your parents have a lot to do with your identity. When you become a teen, your identity starts to have more to do with your friends. So I see that divide and separation happen the older kids get, partially in a natural, independent way, and partially that kids want their identity shaped by people their own age.
BB: I think that observation on your part about characters searching is super smart and exciting. I think it’s why teen and high school spaces—it’s why we wanted to explore this age. I think kids at this age, it’s the first time they actually start breaking away from their parents.
Well, let me ask you a bit more about that, Ben. I don’t want to speculate on your ages.
A year older than your daughter? That’s a feat.
What I want to ask about that, Ben and Daniel, when you look back at your teen years, how do you feel you were searching for identity? Did you ever find an answer?
BB: I’m going to say of course. I was absolutely searching as a high school student. I feel I came of age and started connecting to my sexuality at the height of the AIDS epidemic. That influenced who I am as a gay man. Hugely. And I think I’m still searching. Hopefully.
DB: I feel like I was searching too. One of the great gifts of working on this show is to live and breathe amid these characters. I can’t describe the joy of writing and creating and showing up on set—seeing these characters, many of whom are of color, and identify all across the gender and sexual spectrum. Seeing them walk through life with a certain boldness I didn’t have is tremendously inspiring. I feel like I’m getting to relive a youth I would have loved in a weird way. It’s full of angst and struggle, but it’s really open at the same time.
Both of you say something really interesting there. I had a similar reaction watching it. So let me ask: Ben & Daniel, how much of this is a fantasy for you—the idealization of your own high school years?
DB: I hope it’s not an idealization. We wanted to set the show in Anaheim for a very specific reason. We wanted a world that was large enough you could plausibly buy all these characters who identified different ways. That would be harder to buy set in a small town.
DB: But we didn’t want a utopian world. The strength of characters like Megan is that they are the voice of conservatism in the show. I hope that the show doesn’t feel Utopian, but I hope that it celebrates the joy of queer kids finding each other and finding community and building a family together. I hate messages in shows, but what I would love I for kids who are queer or of color to watch this show and think this person looks like me. They love like me. Maybe I’m not so alone. That would be amazing.
And you, Ben?
BB: I hate all these people.
BB: Yes, absolutely. I think people need to be seen. That’s every human’s fundamental core. My hope is that people who have not been seen before, or not to this degree or complexity to be seen in a light that is full of hope.
This is an all in the family production about family. How does working on a show together change and test your relationships?
ZB: That’s such a good question. Definitely, it’s gotten us to be a lot more honest and open with each other. At first, it was awkward talking to my parents about some of the themes in the show. I think it challenged me to be more honest and open and communicative with my parents. It challenged me to continue developing my relationship with them.
DB: There are small things that are hard to leave behind. You know, when we’re sitting down at the dinner table, it’s like let’s not talk about the show. But the gift the show has given our family is hard to describe because it has opened up so many pathways of communication. When you’re a parent, and your daughter is about to go to college and leave, to have the opportunity to spend time together is such a blessing.
Genera+ion arrives on HBO Max March 11.