Euphoria, HBO’s first foray into the world of (salacious) teenage drama, plays with two starkly different ideas of what high school can be.
On the one hand, there’s the glitter-soaked high the trailer for the series, which premieres June 16th, tries to sell. A kaleidoscope of colors set to dreamy background music, a perpetual house party filled with drugs and booze and good times. It’s the lie we’d all like to buy into, the fabricated memory of youth, the hollow souvenir we dust off when old age, work, and slow metabolisms start to take their toll.
Then there’s the other, more honest portrait of those hormone-ruled years – one that immerses itself in the confusion, angst, and aimlessness of teens whose every mishap and mistake feel like the end of the world. Kids who feel things so viscerally, because of an unbalance of chemicals or LSD-laced pills or the sh*t-state of the world around them, that they live in a constant haze of anxiety and paranoia. Our two versions of high school are the high and the comedown and Euphoria has smartly chosen to focus on the latter.
The series (of which we’ve seen four episodes) begins with its star Zendaya voicing a disinterested narration of her character’s birth – highlighting a violent rejection from her mother’s “cruel cervix” before following her out the birthing canal. Subtle this show is not.
And why should it be? With every 9/11 reference, school shooting drill, mention of nudes and child pornography and some jock forcibly fingering a girl at a school dance, we’re reminded of the utter chaos, and the higher stakes, this era of teenagedom contains.
Zendaya’s Rue is our guide through it all, a young woman who’s been chewed up by over-medicating doctors and parental figures – adults who try to solve an unknowable sickness with multi-colored pills. Rue’s watched her father die from cancer, but her issues probably started before that – her generation is one that’s literally been birthed by anxiety after all. The drugs she takes – a potent mix of xannys and coke and oxy – aren’t the problem, they’re just the means she’s found to quiet it.
She’s readying for a new school year after a stint in rehab following an overdose. We watch her younger sister (Storm Reid) find her in a pool of her own vomit in flashbacks. Rue feels bad about that, bad about everything she’s put her mother and sister through, but not bad enough to stop getting high at parties, or in the bathroom at school, or on the couch of her drug-dealer.
She only really tries to get clean after meeting Jules (Hunter Schafer), a blonde-haired pixie-dream-girl who’s new in town. Jules, who’s trans and likes to dress like anime characters, is refreshingly unashamed of who she is (unlike Rue) and just wild enough to make it in a town filled with kids high off molly and drowning in apathy.
Both Zendaya and Schafer command attention anytime they’re on screen, with the former Disney star carrying the show on the back of a brutally honest, emotionally raw performance. Every breakdown, every violent outburst, every voice-over narrating her character’s dread and exhaustion with life is done with thought and care as if she knows the adults watching might roll their eyes at the melodrama of this woman with few truly tough life experiences. In every scene she quietly screams for you take Rue seriously, to really see the struggle her generation faces, even if you can’t relate to it, even if you don’t care to.
Of course, what will probably entice most people to watch Euphoria is the controversy it’s already stirring so let’s address that. Yes, there are minute-long scenes of full-frontal nudity. Yes, there are locker-rooms full of penises just flapping haphazardly in the air as a particularly nasty jock (played by Kissing Booth star Jacob Elordi) questions his own sexuality. Yes, there are darkly-comedic side-bars teaching us the difference between unsolicited dick pics and acceptable ones. No, none of these facts warrant even half the pearl-grabbing you’ve seen mostly because, while the nudity and sexuality and drug use is explicit, it’s never gratuitous. Euphoria seems less interested in shocking people and more interested in being bluntly honest about the early-loss-of-innocence and confusing messages on sex and morality this new world brings.
If you’re shocked by that well, then, maybe that says more about you than it does this show.
There are some snags in the thread creator Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) is trying to weave. The first episode is filled with jarring flashbacks and messy dialogue that at times feels too heavy-handed to make much of an impact. But the show quickly finds its footing, flitting between characters who may not have warranted much screen-time on any other show. Characters like Kat (Barbie Ferreira), a curvy girl looking to lose her virginity who finds a troubling sense of self-confidence through online pornography. Or Cassie (Everything Sucks star Sydney Sweeney) who’s slut-shamed in the show’s first episode and spends the next few navigating her own sexuality, finding empowerment and then, a sense of shame, after a bad trip on molly. Even Elordi’s Nate Jacobs defies the popular jock archetype, giving us a truly sinister look at a misunderstood young man cracking under the pressure his father and his classmates put on him.
No one is as they seem on Euphoria, another lesson the show seems to want us to learn. In a time where people can have multiple identities and lead shockingly different lives online, these kids are trying to find a middle ground, a way to exist, to get by, to survive in a world with no rules and no forgiveness for breaking them. Whether you’re the intended audience or not, you can probably identify with at least some of that.
‘Euphoria’ premieres on HBO this Sunday, June 16.