The term “generation gap” was introduced in the 1960s to account for the differences between the baby boomers and their parents. What were people to make of their kids, who were so different, so unrelatable? In a sense, this conflict centered around the question of responsibility; was it the parent’s fault their kids turned out this way? Who was responsible for the rebelliousness of the younger generation? The question itself is not new as identities are constantly negotiated between generations, so some consider a generation gap unavoidable. The differences between us, between people, as seen through a generational lens is rife for exploration.
In a sense, this is the theme of all family sitcoms. Not only is it the theme but the source of tension, humor, and whatever life lessons warranted by a special episode. A voice cries in the wilderness, “We are not our parents!” In family sitcoms, tensions arise from everyone believing they’re right, so naturally, it’s refreshing that the newest—and perhaps a-little-too-late—show to arrive to the genre, “Generation Gap,” sets out to subvert these tropes.
The central conceit of Generation Gap is simple enough, although certainly more likely to crop up on SyFy than FoxX. We follow the Santos-Wu family, composed of Harper, Aidan, and their kids, Praline and Jess. The series begins with Harper and Aidan discussing whether Emily and Justin, Harper’s parents, should move in with them. In this way, it sticks close to the genre, following one family in a sea of nuclear families, which decides, for whatever reason to mix it up. The wrinkle—and it’s a big wrinkle—is that it’s set 50 years in the future, where not much has changed except that, through genetic treatments, the human lifespan has been extended indefinitely. The only limitation to the treatment is that, if administered to an individual past a certain age, it is ineffectual. Unfortunately for Emily and Justin, the discovery, development, and commercialization of the treatment came too late. The generation gap is instantiated here not only as a cultural gap but a biological one. For Harper and Aidan, who were raised knowing they would one day die, the discovery of the treatment came as a surprise and forced them to introspect. For Praline and Jess, immortality is their normal. The children live in a world where people effectively no longer die, a world which is strange and inaccessible to Emily and Justin. Harper and Aidan stand between their children and their parents, occupying a transitional space between the mortal and the immortal. Their positionality gives them privileged access to the worldviews held by their parents and their children. While their access helps them understand, it also serves to increase their indecisiveness as they see the issues inherent in both the “old” and “new” worldviews. Harper and Aidan lay at the middle of a culture clash and are, in some senses, “third culture kids,” as immigrants to immortality.
Is “Generation Gap” depressing? One of the central themes inarguably is death, which vividly conjures up negative emotions for most. However, Generation Gap, isn’t sad; it’s heartwarming. Every episode isn’t about death; in fact, the first time the topic comes up in a significant way (other than as the motivation for Emily and Justin’s move-in during the pilot) is in an arc that follows news of Harper’s aunt falling ill in the last three episodes of season one. You’re more likely to encounter quirky situations where Praline and Jess use their grandparent’s books to make a raft because they assumed the books would be waterproof like their digital tablets from which they read. Despite not being the total focus of the series, death is clearly the undercurrent.
Perhaps it sounds cliche, but death is employed as a lens to explore love. The journey that Praline and Jess must embark on is about choosing to love something impermanent in a seemingly permanent world. Of course, for us, this is a necessary part of living, but how often are we made to confront it except for when it is too late? We choose to love because, in some sense, we don’t think it will end. We buy that this time, just this once, it’ll last. This isn’t an option for the kids in “Generation Gap” as they become increasingly aware of their world.
“Generation Gap” is, to say the least, jarring. It skillfully interweaves genuineness and irony into its storytelling. It is beautifully aware of its source material, and it walks a fine line between an homage and a deconstruction. It’s a throwback to a time the writers clearly loved for what it was without the endless glorification that tends to come part and parcel with material reminiscent of the late 80s to early 90s. “Generation Gap” is what it is: a story about a family. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t, but presents itself as a new take on an old idea, and it’s clear where its influences lie.