By Alex Gonzalez
Zelda Barnz has creativity in her blood. Growing up in Los Angeles with a parent in the entertainment industry, she was always surrounded by a diverse, eclectic cast of characters, and her inquisitive nature meant she had a desire to learn about each of them and share their stories. Today the 19-year-old screenwriter is doing just that with Genera+ion, the queer coming-of-age dramedy she crafted while still in high school.
With all the stylistic edge of Euphoria and the biting relatability of Degrassi, Genera+ion homes in on the darkness and beauty of being a teenager today. It follows a loosely connected crew of high schoolers as they navigate everything from sexuality and gender identity, to substance use and social media, to all the hyped-up horniness you’d expect from the genre. The first episode introduces Chester (Justice Smith), a gay boy with a provocative fashion sense; Greta (Haley Sanchez), an introverted lesbian; and Nathan, a bisexual boy coming to terms with his sexuality.
While LGBTQ+ characters have often been relegated to stereotypical sidekick roles, or limited to coming-out narratives, Zelda places them at the forefront; and while grappling with their queerness is indeed an important struggle, it by no means defines them. Each high schooler faces different challenges in their day-to-day lives. Chester lives with his grandmother after his mom dies from cancer. Greta moves in with her aunt after her mother is deported. Nathan struggles with breaking away from his twin sister Naomi (Chloe East) and creating an identity of his own.
“We really tried to focus on queer representation and making sure that when watching our show, queer kids felt really seen,” Zelda says. “All of our queer characters, their personalities are not just about being queer. They have so much more to them than just their sexualities.”
When we first meet Nathan, he is curious about Chester. He also struggles to keep his sexuality a secret from Naomi, which proves more difficult after he hooks up with her boyfriend at a party. Zelda was inspired to create Nathan due to a lack of male bisexual characters in film and television. “I think bi men are ignored and often told, ‘It’s just a phase. This is just a stepping stone on the road to coming out as gay,’ which just isn't true,” Zelda says. “Also bi women are often fetishized instead of represented simply as bi women. I definitely think it's very important to have a bi, male character who is just bisexual. And that's there's nothing else complicated with his sexuality.”
Zelda, herself, is bisexual. She came out to her parents, Daniel and Ben Barnz at age 15, during a three-week stint at summer camp. The camp’s rules forbade Zelda from using her phone, so she wrote a letter. “I ended with ‘I'm bisexual. Love, Zelda.’ And they wrote back,” Zelda says. “It was not difficult for me, having gay parents, to come out, which I also feel so incredibly lucky for.” While Genera+ion is set within a conservative community, Zelda says she never felt like an outsider.
“Growing up in Los Angeles, there are a lot of kids who have gay parents,” Zelda adds. “That was really interesting meeting kids who were adopted like me, or who had gay parents like me. I feel so incredibly lucky to grow up in a space where I never felt like I was the only adopted kid in my class or the only kid with gay parents in my class.”
Other aspects of the series are ripped straight from her life, as in the second episode, when Nathan, Greta, and Chester visit their school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. As a teenager, Zelda was involved in a group at her school called Rainbow Alliance, where she formed friendships with other LGBTQ+ students. Zelda would share stories about Rainbow Alliance meetings with her fathers, who encouraged her to write them down. “These stories were really funny and poignant,” Daniel Barnz says. “Sometimes it was sort of about this person’s struggle, but sometimes it was like, this person showed up at the club meeting, and they were just looking for a date. And [these stories] made me laugh.”
Zelda originally planned to write Genera+ion as a novel or a series of short stories based on those Rainbow Alliance meetings, though she dreamed that one day they would be adapted for the screen. But Daniel, who wrote films like Won’t Back Down and Beastly, encouraged Zelda to write it as a TV show from the beginning. He taught Zelda how to write scripts, and the two bonded over creating the Genera+ion universe.
“I will admit, there was a bit of craven, selfish desire [in creating a television show] because I thought if she was game to do it with me, what an amazing opportunity to do something creative with my daughter,” Daniel says. In his first stab at the teen genre, he serves as co-creator and executive producer. “And also to show her a little bit about the work that I do.” Given the generational gap, the father-daughter duo kept each other in check about queer issues to depict on screen and how to portray them realistically. Daniel says Zelda occasionally tells him “that’s not right” or “I don’t think that would really happen,” so he offers her a listening ear.
Zelda was 17 at the time she first pitched Genera+ion to HBO, and although she admits the initial meeting was rather daunting, she decided she was simply going to have fun and go in with an easy-going attitude. “I remember walking into this huge conference room with this massive, long table,” Zelda says. “My dad and I stood on one side pitching and all these like HBO executives and Lena Dunham were on the other side watching. And I did not think that it was going to get bought or made. So I was just like, ‘I'm gonna have fun with it. I'm just going to do the best I can.’”
The show was given a full-season order, with Dunham serving as an executive producer. When casting for the show, Zelda and Daniel wanted to find actors with a youthful style. “We really wanted to make sure that these kids looked young and felt young, and that they didn't look like 30-year-old models playing teenagers,” Zelda says. “That was definitely a very helpful guideline to have when we were casting, and our cast is just beyond incredible.”
Zelda’s stories and consciousness of contemporary issues have manifested into one of this year’s most hotly anticipated shows. With a gritty yet humorous tone, Genera+ion brings a no-holds-barred approach to depicting the lives and struggles of teens today. Daniel believes that parents can benefit from watching Genera+ion, noting that it would help facilitate open and honest conversations between parents and their children.
“Sometimes there can be a dismissiveness about kids, which is so unfair,” Daniel says. “And it's something I've had to think about myself as a parent. And I feel like if parents can embrace that desire to look at their kids honestly and fairly, it would be amazing. I also think that, one of the reasons this show has been such a joy to work on is because Zelda and I have been able to communicate and talk honestly.”