My Generation, the hourlong drama premiering Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC, has a dauntingly high-concept premise. Loosely modeled on the Up series, the setup is that a film crew followed around a group of nine Austin, Texas, high-schoolers during their senior year back in 2000 and now that same crew is returning to film those same people 10 years later. But unlike the Up films, My Generation is pure fiction: These are fictional documentarians revisiting fictional characters. Yet the show weaves historical events into the characters’ lives—the course of one character life is forever changed by the Bush/Gore election fracas—and sometimes uses actual news footage. Still with me?
The point of all this is to explore the experience and outlook of the generation that came of age in the aughts. As a real-life member of the class of 2000, I was curious to seewhether the show’s depiction of my fellow 28-year-olds was accurate, and whether the series had something meaningful to say about my cohort. After seeing the ads for My Generation plastered all over New York City’s subways—they show blandly attractive young people who could be from any generation accompanied by context-free taglines like “Dumping you was the biggest mistake of my life”—I admit I wasn’t expecting much.
But I was drawn in by the ambitious, if slightly cheesy, opening. A soothing female voice—speaking over Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady“—explains that the year 2000 was a “time of prosperity, of budget surpluses, and peace,” before adding, ominously, “but for these students, and the country alike, change was just around the corner.” The narrator then identifies five events from the past 10 years that altered the world: 9/11, the war on terror, reality television, Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis.
At first blush, 9/11 and reality TV would hardly seem to belong in the same category. But consider that this is a group of young people who might tweet their solidarity with rioters in Iran one moment and gush about the Bachelor finale on Facebook in the next. We’re tagging photos of ourselves from the 1999 field hockey sectional championships while linking to an article about Iraq casualties and updating our status messages to say, “Today is the worst!” Because we’re constantly expressing our reactions to both personal and world events using the same public platforms, the very meta structure of My Generation is actually a fitting way to explore the lives of these twentysomethings. The characters on the show might respond to footage of themselves from their high school days and worry about friends and lovers in Afghanistan in the same interview.
Alas, though My Generation’s conceit is unique, and apt given its subject, the show itself is conventional and soapy. The nine characters are familiar, packaged types: There’s “the rich kid,” the “the nerd,” “the wallflower.” (In a synergistic move, each comes with his own Pandora station). There are two couples among the nine characters: “The beauty queen” is unhappily married to “the rich kid”; they live a life of quiet desperation in a manicured McMansion. “The punk,” meanwhile, is thrilled to be married to “the jock.” The ones who have left Austin—”the overachiever” and “the brain”—return to Texas simultaneously for reasons either ridiculous or predictable. “The overachiever” discovers he has a 9-year-old son who was the result of a one-night stand with “the wallflower” at prom; “the brain’s” father takes ill at roughly the same time.
The show integrates historical events into the plot with varying degrees of success. One that doesn’t work involves Enron: “The overachiever” and “the nerd” used to be best friends, but they no longer speak to each other because their fathers both worked for the energy company and when it imploded, there were personal consequences. Even if you put aside your questions regarding why execs at Houston-based Enron were living in Austin, this story line seems out of place. The Enron debacle mostly involved corporate malfeasance by baby boomers. It had little meaning for Generation Y.
My Generation fares better in its portrayal of the war on terror, which has deeply affected the class of 2000—thousands of twentysomethings have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. “The jock,” Rolly Marks, was a star basketball player during his freshman year at Stanford, but after the attacks of 9/11, he leaves school and joins the Army. He is currently a sergeant in Afghanistan, and his wife Dawn is pregnant. The scene in which Rolly and Dawn connect over a video chat is one of the strongest and most believable in the pilot, bolstered by the impressive, vulnerable performance of actress Kelli Garner.
Instead of being a show with something to say about children of the early ‘80s, My Generation is ultimately more about the generic experience of becoming an adult. Near the beginning of the pilot, one of the faux documentarians asks the characters, who are about to graduate from high school, to describe the future in one word. “Prosperity,” says the rich kid; “success” says the overachiever; “family” says the nerd. A decade later, no one’s present is quite what they imagined it would be when they were earnest teens. Other shows have explored this same arc (The Wonder Years, for example) with heart-rending results. It’s doubtful that My Generation’s cast of cardboard cutouts will ever reach Kevin Arnold levels of pathos. But as a millienial in good standing, I remain foolishly optimistic about the show’s potential. The premise is good, maybe the show will grow into it.