It’s hard to imagine the world of hedonistic excess as depicted in HBO’s new series Euphoria is at all intended to be an authentic look at the lives of teens in 2019. The series is better suited to present an almost absurdly heightened, borderline apocalyptic view of the challenges and pressures faced by teens today. Remember the unrestrained high school bacchanal depicted in the first season of The Leftovers, the one where kids drank alcohol, used various drugs, and played a modern-day version of spin the bottle with a smartphone app to see who would hook up with who, and what little masochistic flourishes they’d add into the mix just to see if they could shock their numbed bodies and psyches into feeling something again? Now imagine someone at HBO though that scene deserved its own series, one starring former Disney star Zendaya and written (and mostly directed) by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation), and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Euphoria is all about.
Reaction to the series and its often graphic — sometimes gratuitous — depictions of sex, drug use, and violence is likely to be equally doom-laden, because the kind of oversexed, hyper-stimulated teenagedom depicted on a minute-by-minute basis in the series is in part an indictment on the society left to these teens by previous generations’ own brand of world-destroying excess. But it’s also because so much of what is gratuitous in Euphoria stems from twenty-something actors representing even younger bodies inflicting harm on themselves and others. And then there’s the nudity — male nudity, in particular — which is already causing a stir, as an episode early in the first season’s eight-episode run features a veritable cavalcade of penises, which, for one reason or another still elicits uncomfortable snickers or outright condemnations.
The moment is admittedly provocative, deliberately fixing the viewers’ gaze on naked male bodies in a manner that’s not typically seen on television, even premium channels like HBO. But as blatant as the parade of genitalia is, Euphoria is not without its more obvious provocations, many of which concern Zendaya’s Rue, a 16-year-old who is called “ghost” by her fellow classmates because so many of them thought she had died of drug overdose during the summer. Rue was actually in rehab, which didn’t take, as she explains in the series’ narration (also by Zendaya) that she fully plans to get back to using as many drugs as possible as soon as she’s able to.
As the series’ farcical opening sequence explains, Rue’s drug addiction was practically an inevitability, a response to the overwhelming burden of life, which began when she was almost crushed by her mother’s cervix (she actually says this), three days after 9/11, when being ushered out of the womb and into the cold, uncaring world she’s spending her teenage years trying so hard to block out. There are other factors, too, like Rue’s borderline personality disorder, her obsessive compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder, all of which she’s been medicated for since childhood, and which, there’s evidence to suggest Levinson is saying, has inured her to certain pharmacological coping mechanisms.
Zendaya is very good in the role, avoiding most of the obvious one-note cliches of playing a drug-addict, which, despite its prevalence in popular culture, often produces stale characters. Rue is smart, likable (even when she’s not intended to be), and independent, making her the ideal protagonist in what is essentially an ensemble that includes a variety of high school “types,” who will conceivably grow into full-fledged characters as the series progresses. And in a rarity, Rue’s narration is actually an asset to the series, as it provides context and occasional bits of levity (though not nearly enough) to the stimulatory onslaught that is Euphoria’s brand of storytelling.
As good as Zendaya is, the series’ bright spot is newcomer Hunter Schafer, a trans actor who plays Jules Vaughn, a new addition to the high school who quickly ingratiates herself with Rue following a violent act of defiance aimed at the resident neanderthal jock, Nate (Jacob Elordi), who tries to take his anger out on someone he perceives as weaker, only to discover Jules is anything but. While Jules has her damage just like everyone else in the series — she routinely engages in online chats with older men online, leading to a sexual encounter with the Eric Dane (The Last Ship), who is, not coincidentally, the father of one her classmates — she also seems to be the one character for whom life is not an endless slog of misery. As such, her friendship with Rue is an early positive sign that while the show’s central figure has no intention of giving up drugs, she’s at least aligned herself with a character that may prevent her arc from become a narrative grind.
Though provocative and entertaining, Euphoria stumbles in the insistence at its own authenticity. Part of the problem is due to the (necessary) casting of mostly twenty-somethings as teenagers, very few of whom look the part, which has the effect of disregarding the most important part of adolescence: the way adulthood comes in fits and starts. Levinson’s portentous vision of teenage life has no room for the unease and gracelessness of ungainly bodies, mystifying emotions. Instead, he presents a world intended to incite a reactionary response that is utterly (and often overly) worldly in such a way as to erase its adolescent bona fides.
And that’s fine. Euphoria functions best as a funhouse mirror reflecting the ways in which an always-on, hyper-stimulated, anxiety-ridden culture might produce a generation of teens wallowing in the mire of their own excess. In that sense, Euphoria’s heightened, apocalyptic inauthenticity may also be its greatest and most compelling asset.
Euphoria continues next Sunday with ‘Stuntin’ Like My Daddy’ @10pm on HBO.