The provocative teenage drama genre is in the midst of a furore primarily because of 13 Reasons Why. The Netflix series was accused of glorifying the suicide of a young, troubled teenager, where she transcends life and death, only to become an ethereal being, aiding and advising those who played a part in her tragic demise.
While the show was flawed and overtly exploitative, we watched with perverse pleasure,
shamefully letting the episodes flow, but reflecting on our binge, it was clear, the format
With the high-school drama expectantly put on ice, Euphoria emerges. HBO’s new daring show tackles addiction; sexuality; body-shaming; porn, and everything in between. Essentially, it presents a microcosm of internet culture, where the Instagram generation is exposed to all sorts of nasty, unfiltered content – a mother’s nightmare realised. Making “another show” about teens requires a certain amount of care due to its predecessors’ shortcomings. Yet, Assassination Nation writer-director Sam Levinson has managed to tip-toe past the genre’s pitfalls and deliver something special. Though, at times abrasive, Euphoria distills the explicit with moments of extreme tenderness.
The show sees actor-singer Zendaya, of Disney and Spider-Man fame, returning to school following a semi-successful stint in rehab. She plays Rue, a stricken 17-year-old who is continually abusing, while lying to her fretting mother that she’s on the mend. Rue is at the epicentre of a diverse cast of characters: from the mysterious Jules (trans activist Hunter Schafer) to the sociopathic – and Patrick Bateman inspired – jock Nate (Jacob Elordi) to the fierce Kat (Instagram starlet Barbie Ferreira) to, particularly loveable, Fez (Angus Cloud), a local drug dealer who calmly puts up with Rue’s emotional outbursts. Populating a show with relative unknowns is audacious. Yet with the American Honey and Good Time talent scout, Jennifer Venditti, onside, the world is tinged with realism and wholly captivating.
Zendaya is undoubtedly the star of the show in casting and performance. Her portrayal of Rue is equally crushing as it is understated. Her wallowing, self-loathing ways will frustrate you. But her interactions, particularly with Jules and little sister Gia (Storm Reid), reveals a brilliantly-executed layer of vulnerability. Unlike 13 Reasons Why, the show doesn’t romanticise the protagonist’s decisions, it earnestly presents the devastating nature of her addiction at every turn. An honourable mention must be noted for Elordi’s Nate, however. He is your typical herculean chiseled-by-angels jock. Yet his villainy is so potent that when he smiles, he legitimately looks evil.
But the beauty of Euphoria isn’t just the acting. Visually, it is both dizzying and intoxicating. Most episodes focus in on a particular character and contain unique visual cues to help us empathise and understand each one’s situation.
These scenes form some of the series’ best material from deeply repressed parental trauma to fully animated One Direction fan fiction. They provide us with a fascinating insight into each character’s festering damage underpinning their psyche. Often, such visual indulgence can be stifling, but Euphoria’s flourishes succeed both narratively and thematically. The most cinematic, retina-tickling moments come when the characters are submerged in a drug infused haze. These set pieces encapsulate the detachment and disorientation experienced while under a blanket of opiates. Levinson furiously pans and swirls the camera, peppering the shot with pulsating neons (This tweet comes to mind…). Euphoria’s presentation is generally impeccable, even its banger-laden soundtrack will have you fidgeting for your Shazam button.
Of course, its existence will still send parents into a frenzy. The bevy of penises foisted into your face will take care of that. But there is so much more going on in Euphoria than conjuring controversy. Often people are quick to blame social media for the current generation being overly vacuous and self-absorbed. But in reality, it’s having the opposite effect. Narcissism is being mistaken for self-doubt.
And with Euphoria, Levinson presents a school of teens consumed by an influx of mixed media messages. Whether it’s their appearance or perception, each character is scrutinised into fulfilling a role. For instance, the character of Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) is overly sexualised by her peers – as she has massive boobs – and subsequently, they deem her a sex-crazed whore, mostly because porn has informed their idea of real-world sex, and partly, they’re all horndogs.
Euphoria defies expectations and misgivings. As the opening titles fade and Rue’s world-weary voiceover begins, you’re submerged in world that’s exciting and unpredictable. Season one ends with much unresolved, and as it’s been commissioned for a second series, it looks as though HBO might have the makings of another contemporary classic.