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'It's a Sin' and 'Genera+ion' creators at SXSW: Finding LGBT joy in world of 'trauma porn'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in HBO Max's "It's a Sin."

"As long as straight is the default, queer representation will be important," said Zelda Barnz, the wunderkind writer and producer behind HBO Max show "Genera+ion," which follows a group of modern teens exploring sexuality. Barnz appeared on a South by Southwest panel Tuesday with dad Daniel Barnz, also on the show's creative team, and TV veteran Russel T Davies, whose AIDS dramedy "It's a Sin" also airs on HBO Max.

About 40 years separate the time periods of the two shows, which show the LGBTQ community in far different states. “Period drama, really?" Davies said of his 1980s-set TV show. “My life is a period drama?"

We Love This So Much:'It's a Sin' on HBO Max is a cathartic plague tale

"It's a Sin" serves as a correction in the queer canon, he said: to remind a straight, middle-aged audience that a plague wiped out a generation and to tell a young audience about it for the first time. Conversations about queer rights have to keep happening or we'll lose progress, he added. Zelda Barnz, who pointed out that a huge margin of Gen Z people identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, said she wanted to keep those conversations alive by showing stories of joy in "Genera+ion."

Here are a few highlights from the session on LGBTQ representation in TV.

'Gen Z, come save us!'

That's from Davies, who appreciated that "Genera+ion" shows happy, thriving, young queer people going about their lives. The young characters in "It's a Sin" would be the same age now as the parents in "Genera+ion." Daniel Barnz, who co-created that show with his daughter, said "Zelda sat in the writers room to be a barometer and north star to make sure show didn’t feel filtered through adult nostalgia." 

The way that millennials get slammed in pop culture hasn't really come for Gen Z, said Zelda Barnz (who counts herself among the latter demographic) — partly because so many in Gen Z, the digital generation, are still very young. "People get so up in arms about social media and iPhones," she said, but it's not all bad: "It has the ability to connect queer youth together."

Zelda Barnz cited a statistic that 30-50% of Gen Z identify on the queer spectrum, but she thinks that might even be an undercount, since so many young people have not figured out how they identify. When developing "Genera+ion," she wasn't interested in "trauma porn," or in other words, seeing queer youth "bullied and brutalized." The idea was for the show "to be about joy."

Father-daughter duo Daniel and Zelda Barnz created the HBO Max show "Genera+ion."

'This one, we can allow a bit of a celebration'

”I’m old and weary and cynical,” said Davies, whose previous work includes LGBTQ-oriented shows like "Queer as Folk" and "Years & Years." But the crossover appeal of "It's a Sin" across demographics has been "absolutely astonishing," he said, with people stopping him in the streets.

"I was entering a body of work," Davies said about creating a gay story that delves into the AIDS crisis. "As a gay man of this age, I'm drawn to it." But on "this one, we can allow a bit of a celebration," he said. There's more forgiveness in "It's a Sin," Davies said in comparison to the "piping white-hot fury" of seminal works like Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart." It's more of a hard stare, not a furious stare, Davies said of his latest creation.

He's glad that "It's a Sin," which stars Years & Years (the band, not the TV show) singer Olly Alexander, can bring the pain of those dark years in the early days of the disease back to light, both to "18-year-olds with no idea this ever happened" and to people in their 40s to 60s "who could look away" at the time the show is set.

More SXSW:Movie-loving Russian immigrant turns his story into 'Potato Dreams of America'

An honest conversation

"Sometimes, media representation of queer characters can be very unsexual," said Zelda Barnz. Queer characters are often "stripped of their sexuality" to make shows "more digestible to straight people." That's why in "Genera+ion," the showrunners wanted to show teens having sex as much as straight teens — or as little.

When it comes to queer representation in media and in politics, we keep having the same conversations, but we have to keep doing that, Davies said. But as long as new generations come along, "we'll be OK," he said.

"It's still a fight," Davies said.

The first three episodes of "Genera+ion" are streaming on HBO Max, and all five episodes of "It's a Sin" are available on the platform.

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