Euphoria’s (10 p.m. Sundays, HBO) reputation certainly preceded itself. The TV series debut from creator/writer/director Sam Levinson, this high school-set drama offers a frank look at teen sex, drug use and mental health, with enough adult content to warrant not one but two warnings ahead of each episode. Early reviews harped on the show’s gratuitous nudity and sexual violence, as if the ever-graphic Game of Thrones is just a distant memory. The Hollywood Reporter’s pearl-clutching account of an episode that featured no less than 30 penises cemented the sentiment that parents (and stuffy entertainment writers) truly just don’t understand — and only added to my intrigue.
These reactions had me half-expecting Euphoria to be an overzealous version of the trite and troublesome 13 Reasons Why or a less fun Degrassi, but the series charts its own path as a raw story about addiction and coming of age in rapidly changing times.
The show centers on Rue (Zendaya), a girl destined for struggles at birth, it seems. She was diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses early on and began experimenting with her parents’ prescriptions at a young age. We meet her fresh out of rehab and on the brink of her junior year of high school. We soon find out that she has no intention of staying sober, despite a recent overdose that has left her family reasonably traumatized.
Unable to connect with the friends from her childhood, Rue’s sole companion is her drug dealer. While other kids get wasted to party, hook up or fit in, she’s using alone, making her way through the boozy crowds like a ghost. That is until she meets Jules (Hunter Schafer), a new girl in town with her own complicated identity.
In many ways, Jules, who is transgender, seems confident in who she is. But, like Rue, she constantly puts herself in risky situations. The two hit it off immediately in a sweet relationship teetering on romance where, refreshingly, topics like gender identity and sexual expression don’t need to be spoon-fed to the audience.
“I win,” Jules half-jokingly says to Rue as the two compare figurative battle wounds.
Since 2010, Zendaya has graduated from the Disney Channel to bonafide blockbusters like The Greatest Showman and the new Spiderman flicks, with a Pop music career in between. She’s been a talented multihyphenate from a young age, but this role is career-defining. Her performance as Rue can elicit total sympathy and utter frustration all at once. As a 22-year-old who’s never touched drugs or alcohol, the mononymous star manages to capture a haunting portrait of addiction without any after-school-special vibes.
That’s not to say this pitch-black take on adolescence will totally ring true to most people in that age group. The average high schooler is not out meeting strangers in motels for sex or doing a stint in rehab or starting up an adult web-cam venture. And certainly 11-year-old, tattooed drug dealers are few and far between. I’d hope.
Euphoria offers a scandalous, surreal view, but it does tap into the unique terrain navigated by kids born post-9/11, who have had the world at their fingertips via technology their entire lives, an experience where limitless possibilities are clouded by existential dread. Dive below the sensational surface and you’ll find struggles long faced by many young people of many generations — Levinson, 34, based much of the show on his own struggles with addiction.
The heavy subject matter here is balanced by lush sensory details, from the soundtrack to a tapestry of colorful visuals. Beautiful psychedelic trips are juxtaposed by terrifying, grotesque overdoses and outbursts — a dangerous dance in an attempt to feel something.
Is Euphoria a show for teens or their families? There’s no right answer. For some viewers, this is just too explicit and triggering. And who wants to see an erect penis on-screen with their parents in the room? But I’d argue that a squeaky-clean sitcom where everyone is perfect or a light melodrama where bad decisions have zero repercussions aren’t truly any better for a younger audience.
Vivid and vicious but genuine, with standout performances all around, the series stands out from the pack of dark teen fare. With a dash of soapy twists and final-scene revelations, Euphoria will keep you coming back for another dose.
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern