The 90’s had “90210,” the 2000’s had “One Tree Hill,” the 2010’s had “Gossip Girl.” Gen Z’s landmark teen drama goes by the name of “Euphoria,” and with only one-and-a-half seasons on the books, the show has already managed to cause conversation and controversy alike.
“Euphoria” might just be one of the more bizarre takes on teen life compared to its predecessors. It follows Rue (portrayed by actress Zendaya Coleman), your average angsty teen protagonist on crack — and I mean that literally, because the core of Euphoria is Rue’s addiction and its effect on the people around her. We’re taken through her highs and her lows, her heroine/fentanyl/weed/pill induced dreams and nightmares that color and drive the show’s storyline.
Rue’s adventures with various substances and the chaos that ensues, including a few overdoses and a drug trade subplot, don’t even scratch the surface of just how gritty this show can get. We have Maddy, who suffers from domestic abuse at the hands of Nate, whose father Cal is a sexual predator towards minors such as Jules, who does sex work in addition to her friend Kat, who is a camgirl for a few episodes. One episode of “Euphoria” has more warnings on it’s label than a bottle of pharmaceuticals.
Perhaps that’s why the show has gotten so many criticisms about it’s realism, or lack thereof. I’m grateful to be able to say that “Euphoria” doesn’t speak to my experiences during my almost four years of high school. Most teens my age probably can’t say that they were selling powder and murdering drug kingpins at 13 like character Ashtray can, or been asked to strip naked by a group of shady dealers like Rue has. The wealth of the characters certainly separates them from the 60% black, 59% Hispanic, 56% American Indian, 32% Asian, and 27% white adolescents that live in low-income families. This may be the reason why it is sometimes hard to empathize with the largely privileged cast of characters, despite the surreal and sometimes hard to believe situations they find themselves in.
But what makes “Euphoria” stand out amongst it’s other competitors— current teen shows such as “Riverdale,” “All American,” and “Sex Education” — is it’s stylistic take on teen living. Sure, the excessive makeup and topsy turvy camera angles may seem a bit over the top, but what teen doesn’t glamorize their own life? It’s important to remember that the show is narrated by Rue, so everything is shown through her unreliable, sometimes shaky, almost always drug affected lens. Even with a storyline that can only loosely cover the experiences of every teen, the show does a great job at showing that when you’re a teenager, you feel like you’re on top of the world. Within the chaos, there’s glittery eyeshadow and borderline exhibitionist wardrobes. It’s organized chaos, stylized anarchy.
However, sometimes the show’s over-stylized portrayal of teen life can sometimes veer on the side of overwhelming. It’s throwing paint on the wall just to see what sticks. There’s a sequence in episode two in which character Nate is unconscious and goes through a series of hallucinations that, while well shot and directed, depict queasy images of his own father mid-coitus and nude scenes of his love interest Cassie. The way that the camera follows actress Sydney Sweeney’s body, who portrays Cassie, feels objectifying rather than flattering. And while sure, we are watching her from the viewpoint of a lusting and unconscious Nate, for a show that is showcasing minors, it feels hard to watch.
This isn’t the first time the show has had weird bouts of nudity. I’ve watched almost every HBO show and witnessed some pretty carnal images, but nothing compares to what I’ve seen on “Euphoria.” The opening 15 minutes of season two’s first episode includes a gratuitous amount of gory nudity and scenes that I wish I could forget. When the show finally does manage to tackle legitimate issues that plague teens today, like a montage in which character Kat reflects on society’s aggressive and sometimes unrealistic push for self-love, it’s accompanied with a brutal sex scene — involving a Dothraki Warrior a la “Game Of Thrones” — that feels unwarranted and out of tone. The subject itself isn’t questionable; engaging in sexual activity is normal for teenagers. But It’s hard not to question a 37-year old Sam Levinson’s motives when he’s writing in these very graphic sex scenes in which the subjects are minors.
Besides a very obvious nudity issue, “Euphoria” also seems to struggle with striking a consistent tone and stringing plot lines together. The first three episodes of the new season tease a drug trade subplot that feels out of place in the show’s high school setting. Rue, our main character, barely interacts with the other students outside of love interest Jules and new character Elliot. She’s separated to the point where it feels like I’m watching two different shows at times. And maybe that’s the point, to showcase the isolation that addicts feel, the difficulty in making friends, but I wonder if Sam Levinson could’ve done a better job at weaving the storylines together more seamlessly.
When we’re not focusing on Rue, we’re shown a cast of characters that are so flawed it’s hard to find anyone to root for. The show has begun to lay the groundwork for a new budding romance between Fezco, one of the show’s only likable adult characters, and Lexi, a minor, stripping the former of the one thing that made him captivating — his moral compass, that guided his actions even when he was heavily involved in the violence of drug trading. Cassie, the show’s sweetheart, is now being strung along by one of HBO’s most deplorable villains, Nate.
“Euphoria” has gripped audiences around the world, earning high viewership numbers and lots of conversation on social media. But it’s hard to tell if audiences are watching each week because they actually find these characters and plotlines to be compelling, or if we all just wanna see how far Sam Levinson will push the bar of morality. Only time will tell, but if early reviews are an indicator of anything, it may be time for some new tricks if the show wants to maintain its spot as one of the top teen dramas of this decade.