Generation creators Daniel and Zelda Barnz unpack the show's queer themes.

·11-min read
Photo credit: HBO/Warrick Page
Photo credit: HBO/Warrick Page

Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.

Next up, we're speaking to Generation creators Daniel and Zelda Barnz.

Describing his phenomenal young cast, Generation co-creator Daniel Barnz says "All these characters could be the main character". And he's absolutely right.

From Riley and Nathan to Delilah and Greta, everyone here has a story to tell, and this fluid notion of what it means to be a protagonist is also representative of Generation as a whole. With cameras and narrative perspectives that are just as fluid as the sexuality on display, Generation is not your typical teen show, not by any means. And we're not just saying that because the first few episodes open with a teenager giving birth in a mall.

Daniel and his husband Ben Barnz work closely with their teenage daughter, Zelda, to make Generation feel authentically young in ways that the twenty-somethings starring in shows like Riverdale could only dream of. And did we mention how queer Generation is? "Generation is super-gay" Zelda laughs. "I don’t know a lot of other teen shows that are incredibly gay."

Digital Spy caught up with Daniel and Zelda to unpack Generation's queer themes and discuss why the show is so much more than just another Euphoria.

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Generation is very much an ensemble piece, but Chester does have a slightly more prominent voice on the show. How did that come about?

Zelda Barnz: Chester was kind of inspired by this person I went to high school with, who was very openly queer – performing in drag in front of the entire school sometimes – and was also the student body president. It was just really cool that this very openly queer person who came to school in high heels with these beautiful nails on would also be one of the most popular people in senior class.

That was very interesting to me because on TV, we’re always shown these tropes of queer kids being bullied, of queer kids having no friends and being isolated. That’s not really true of my experience, and that’s not true of every queer person’s experience. And so we wanted to show that through Chester. But also, I will say that the characters all have moments of being the main character, even if Chester does feel very central.

Daniel Barnz: Also, with Chester too, we always knew that we wanted him to be a fantastically layered character, a character who could be flamboyant and extroverted, but also kind of an introvert and a deep thinker, someone who could spontaneously quote everybody from RuPaul to Kafka. So we knew he had to have a lot of screen time for us to be able to explore all those complexities.

Typically, that character is the side-kick or the best friend or the comic relief. One of the things that we feel so blessed with in making the show is the opportunity to take those characters who are traditionally side-lined and make them the front-and-centre focal points.

Chester falls in love with his guidance counsellor, Sam, in part one. How did that storyline come about and how did you go about tackling such a sensitive topic?

DZ: With Chester, we’re also really drawn to this notion of in-betweens. He’s a character who’s sort of in-between age-wise. He’s not quite as young-feeling as some of the other characters, but not quite as old-feeling as Sam. As a biracial character, he sort of exists in an in-between world of kind of Black and white.

Also, I think that he’s a character who feels extraordinarily lonely at times, which is funny – again, sometimes it seems like he walks through the middle of campus, and he’s right there in the centre of things, and then he has these moments where he climbs up rooftops, and you feel this profound sense of loneliness.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

So when Chester walks in and sees Sam for the first time, he really latches onto him. Because he’s suddenly seeing this person who’s also Black, who’s also queer, and who represents the kind of person that Chester wants to be in love with.

Chester as a character is really in love with being in love, so he projects all this stuff onto Sam, and Sam immediately senses it. We want to explore what it is for a character like Chester to confuse that sort of profound mentorship role with other feelings of love and attraction.

We were very, very, very cautious about how it unfolded, and making sure you felt like you understood why Chester was drawn to him; that Sam was friendly enough but not too friendly. It’s been interesting because sometimes you hear a lot of debate about people when they watch the scenes. Did Sam overstep himself? Did Sam do something he should not have? When you force people to really analyse it, they think, "Oh, no, he probably didn’t."

Why do you think queerness is crucial in marginalised storytelling?

ZB: I think that specific characters are really important in television. The more specific the character, the more people will actually be able to relate to different aspects of the character, even if they don’t feel like they are the character necessarily. And so I think that that was something we really tried to focus on – writing these specific, authentic teenagers, and just trying to make sure they all felt like they really had their own voice and their own story, and that they were all very different from one another.

Everyone working on teen shows tend to not be teenagers, and I think that it was really interesting, actually, being a teenager and working on a show about people my age. I think one of my biggest jobs was helping with the screen-phone stuff, making sure that text messages looked real, and writing a lot of the social media parts of the show. We wanted to make sure that the use of social media felt authentic and real.

DB: We watch these high school shows as adults, and sometimes these adults look older, or their physiques are more mature than teenagers. And you sort of just accept it as the thing with teen shows. But it was really interesting to talk to Zelda about it in terms of the messages – even the subliminal messages – that get sent to teenagers when they’re seeing older people portray them. Because their bodies look like bodies that you could never have.

Even just sometimes the way that older people can walk through life with a little more confidence than younger people, it can send potentially damaging messages to teenagers. So we’d be in the casting room, and Zelda would be like, "Yes, that person looks young, but their confidence level doesn’t feel like a teenager" or "That person is definitely older but their body just looks like one I would see before".

Our writer's room was majority queer, majority women, and majority people of colour. All of our directors were directors of colour as well. We really felt that it was critical in the authorship of all of these characters of colour that people could help to make them feel as authentic and as real as possible. When you’re thinking a lot about creating these people, you really want to bring that kind of diversity of perspective in.

Photo credit: Jennifer Rose Clasen - HBO
Photo credit: Jennifer Rose Clasen - HBO

Queerness is so integral to Generation. How do you feel the show tackles LGBTQ+ themes in comparison to other shows and the industry as a whole?

ZB: Something that a lot of other shows don’t necessarily emphasise is a celebration of queerness and queer joy. I think a lot of other shows have amazing queer representation but tend to lean into the pain of being queer, and the suffering of living in a society that doesn’t accept you. As a young queer person, it would have been really amazing for me to see a celebration of queer people and queer love on screen.

Definitely in middle school, when I was realising I was queer, I was watching a lot of shows where queer kids were being bullied and queer kids were struggling to find out who they were. I think it would have been so cool for me to just see unapologetically happy, queer characters on TV. That’s something we really tried to focus on in Generation.

DB: Because so many of our characters are queer, it allows us to explore queerness as it intersects with race and ethnicity as well. In many shows that have really great queer characters, sometimes it feels like just by virtue of screen time or whatever, those queer storylines can get very exclusively focused on their queerness. What we wanted to be able to do was have characters who are queer, whose storylines could be about them being queer, but also just about them being people.

Sometimes it’s just a simple question of math. You don’t have enough screen time. Or if you have too many characters who are not queer, you can’t do it. But because we have so many queer characters, we were really able to sort of let our characters be queer but not let their queerness define their stories.

I've heard people compare Generation to Euphoria, and I also get some Skins vibes while I'm watching too. How do you feel about those kind of comparisons personally?

ZB: Those are all fantastic shows so I’m very flattered that we’re getting compared to other amazing teen shows. I will just say, it’s interesting that oftentimes shows that are all set within the same age group, especially when it’s teenagers, tend to get compared to each other a lot more than they would necessarily if… [pause]

DB: High-school shows tend to get lumped together. Really, when you look at it, the shows are all so different, and not qualitatively better or worse. One of the things that Zelda always emphasised about teenagers’ lives and the way that they get represented on screen is that so often, shows get really hyper-focused on teen romance. Who’s in love with whom? Who’s messing up on the romantic front?

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Zelda’s like, "The actual reality of being a teenager is like, yeah, you’re crushing hard, for sure, but also, sometimes you’re just with your friends. Sometimes you’re just out there being bored." If we really want to show teenagers, we have to be able to explore all of these things. We have to be able to look at non-romantic relationships. And that’s really opened up some interesting things.

What kind of message do you hope fans take away after watching Generation?

ZB: I think my biggest hope for the impact of the show is just that young, queer people see it, and feel like they can be as unapologetically themselves as some of our characters are. I think it’s really important that queer kids see themselves represented on screen. If this makes any young gay kid feel less alone, that’s really amazing. I count that as a success in my book.

DB: Honestly, the best responses are the DMs that Zelda and the cast get, were it’ll be like, "I’m a young queer kid in India, and I saw myself on screen." Those things are kind of amazing.

I think oftentimes when you see shows about high-schoolers, and particularly shows about high-schoolers that are created and exclusively written by adults, there are some unconscious biases and judgments that can filter into those shows.

One of the great gifts of having a teen co-creator and executive producer is that she’s a real watchdog to make sure that those biases aren’t unconsciously creeping in. Besides the show being a real celebration of teen queerness, it’s also just a real celebration of Gen Z’s boldness. That is something that I would love for people to take away.

Yeah, teenagers are always going to be flawed. They’re always going to make really messed-up decisions. They’re always going to do the exact opposite of what they should do, and do what they want to do [laughs]. But there is also something about Zelda, and the teens her age, who are just so crazily inspirational right now, in terms of the way that they’re walking through life with an openness – not just about sexuality, but about mental health and so many things that we didn’t necessarily have in previous generations.

Generation airs on HBO Max in the US. A UK air date is yet to be announced.

This month, Digital Spy Magazine counts down the 50 greatest LGBTQ+ TV characters since the Stonewall riots. Read every issue now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.

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