“This one,” says one college student to another in the pilot of ABC’s recent sitcom Grown-ish, “is Black Lives Matter.”
He gestures to a badge pinned to his camo jacket. “I’ve got ‘I can’t breathe’,” he continues, pointing to another, which bears the dying words of the US police shooting victim Eric Garner. He looks earnestly around the room, and then proffers a third on his sleeve: “‘Michelle 2020’.”
If the past six or so years of popular culture have been preoccupied with the millennial, the generation of introspection, self-interest and half-hearted politics, this was the moment at which I realised we were in danger of becoming old news.
“Gen X gave us MTV, Friends and the first black president,” says Grown-ish’s protagonist, Zoe, in a voiceover in a later episode. (At “first black president”, the camera flicks to a shot of Bill Clinton playing the jazz saxophone.)
“Millennials gave us reality TV, ‘friends’,” she continues, over a screenshot of Facebook, “and the real first black president. And then there’s my generation: Generation Z, the iGeneration. We’re racially diverse, sexually diverse, ultra-socially conscious and hyper-sensitive.”
As a titlecard emblazoned with the acronym “LGBTQAI+” swooshed across the screen, I began to make out the contours of the new era. Gone was the unique combination of irony and anxiety that defined my cohort; here was a thoroughly modern group of early twentysomethings with a very different set of concerns.
Since the dawn of the streaming era, TV, perhaps more than any other art form, has bent itself around my generation. We were a ripe subject but also a smart target demographic: young enough to consume video online, old enough conceivably to pay for a subscription – and, crucially, endlessly fascinated by watching ourselves.
A sub-genre emerged, fleshing us out in the popular imagination, from the gross-out girls of Broad City to the sexcapades of Chewing Gum, the picture made all the more authentic for the fact that young people themselves were for the first time gaining access to the camera.
It all began in 2012 with the rather grim realisation that I was Lena Dunham. Or rather, that I was Hannah Horvath, the preposterous alter ego she embodied on HBO’s Girls, and through whom she lampooned herself, her entire generation and, by extension, me.
Hannah and her friends were not just painfully like me and mine – jobless graduates with no intention of curbing their brunching nor their partying in the interests of personal betterment – they were also groundbreakingly symbolic of a moment in time.
“You know what the weirdest part about having a job is?” says the insufferable Jessa in an early episode. “You have to be there every day.
Even on the days you don’t feel like it.” (The line later featured in a 2016 BuzzFeed article titled: “40 Quotes From Girls That Hit Too Close To Home For Twentysomethings.”)
Dunham’s portrayal remains the original; no TV show of recent times has penetrated the zeitgeist quite like it. But for all its agonising accuracies, it didn’t get everything right. What Girls didn’t foresee was how rapidly my generation was evolving: that it was speaking to a tiny (and very white) group of people that was increasingly aware of the diversity around them.
“The argument has been made that smart women on screen are already enough of a minority to make up for the lack of women of colour,” wrote the critic Jenna Wortham in an essay titled “Where (My) Girls At?”. “Nope. Not good enough.”
Fortunately, TV would evolve with the times, with or without Girls. Downstream came High Maintenance, the weed comedy, Search Party, the hipster-y melodrama, and Fleabag, the excruciating account of one woman’s struggle to reconcile her sex life and her weird family, all of which probed new and embarrassing facets of the experience of my early 20s.
But it was shows by people of colour – Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, among others – that really reshaped the millennial, proving themselves better equipped not only to handle the experience of being non-white, but also questions that applied to everyone in the new age of “wokeness”.
“Isn’t a lack of a father the reason you hate trans people?” a talk-show host asks a perplexed rapper in one exceptional episode of Atlanta. (The episode also features a black character who claims to have a “trans-racial identity” and presents himself as a middle-aged white woman; “You look like Drake Malfoy, dude,” the rapper remarks.)
All in all, TV’s Millennial grew up, remoulding itself around a rapidly changing world. And the future is more “woke” still. Facebook, Apple and YouTube are entering the streaming game alongside Amazon and Netflix, and will be bringing their younger demographics with them.
Facebook’s first major drama offering will be a remake of a hit Norwegian web series called Skam, whose teen protagonists navigate gender, sexuality and the business of growing up in what is essentially an infinitely more sophisticated version of the Channel 4 drama Skins.
“The global mentality is moving towards free world trade and increased market liberalism,” intones a sombre teenaged voiceover in Skam’s opening moments.
“A world full of opportunities, a world where dreams can come true. It sounds fantastic, and it is fantastic. For a very small percentage of us. But for the vast, poor majority, the capitalist system means only one thing: death and suffering.” TV for the March For Our Lives generation is coming.
Voice of a generation
Perhaps the new age of earnestness will erode a certain kind of satire. Certainly Gen Z have not yet given us too many reasons to laugh at them.
But rewatching the early series of Girls, it is already hopelessly out of date. There’s something about their wilful cluelessness that is totally incompatible with this moment in time. No educated person in their mid-20s is that ignorant any more. No one I know is that white.
But perhaps this is an imperfection built in to the attempt to capture a generation: the inevitability that your portrait, like your subjects, will age eventually.
“I think I might be the voice of my generation,” says the narcissist Hannah Horvath to her despairing parents in Girls’ first episode. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” And for a brief moment, she almost was.