In the third episode of the trippy and explicit Euphoria, the pseudo-recovering addict Rue (Zendaya) enters the bedroom of her younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid), and finds her watching an episode of My So-Called Life. By referencing the 25-year-old ABC high-school series, Euphoria tips its hat to a previous entry in the same genre and reminds the audience that what was praised for its honest depiction of teen life in 1994 now looks quaint by comparison. That’s especially true if you’re comparing it to Euphoria.
The new HBO drama — based on an Israeli series and created by Sam Levinson, son of filmmaker Barry Levinson — depicts modern-day adolescence as an unfiltered foray into drugs, alcohol, digital porn, and depression. It is artfully photographed, but often hard to look at because it is so suffocatingly bleak. After watching the first four episodes, I know that I don’t hate this show — it succeeds at sucking the viewer into its vibe and at building some genuine suspense about how certain story lines will play out. Zendaya is also exceptional as Rue, the glue that holds this sprawling ensemble piece together. But I can’t say for certain that I fully like it, either, because it’s gratuitous for reasons that don’t always seem necessary.
From its very first moments, Euphoria announces itself as a show aiming to capture a specific generation, in this case, the Gen Zers born as the century turned from the 20th to 21st. The opening sequence follows Rue on her journey through her mother’s womb and into the world, where she arrives three days after 9/11. There’s no way Rue could remember those first weeks outside of a uterus, but her voice-over narration implies that she was shaped in some way by breathing her first breaths while her parents absorbed coverage of the towers and the Pentagon burning.
As she grows up, Rue encounters other issues, too. Some combination of OCD, anxiety, and a possible bipolar disorder leads her to ingesting meds from a very young age, which sets her up to become addicted to opioids in her later years. As the series opens, she’s just gotten back from a summer spent in rehab and is seemingly getting back on track … until we see how quickly she returns to the doorstep of her dealer, Fez (Angus Cloud). She’s not alone in her troubles, either.
Every episode reveals more and more about the friends and acquaintances in Rue’s world, including Jules (Hunter Schafer), a new trans girl in town who becomes Rue’s best friend but also finds companionship in online hook-ups, including one with an older man who rapes her in episode one. There’s also, among others: Nate (Jacob Elordi of The Kissing Booth who, from certain angles, is a dead ringer for Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles), a jock who’s attracted to men and filled with rage about that fact; Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), a girl with a reputation for being promiscuous and not sure how to change that perception; and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), a writer of raunchy One Direction fan-fiction who cultivates a sexy online alter ego that flies in the face of her more intellectual and demure image.
The show follows all of them and others as they find various ways to disengage from confronting their emotions while convincing themselves that they’re doing just fine. Euphoria doesn’t just depict these kids’ lives, it takes pains to let us see the world through their eyes. There’s a hazy quality to the series, particularly in the first episode, that reflects the way the pill-popping Rue views her surroundings. At one point, after sniffing some powder up her nose at a party, Rue stumbles out of a bathroom and into a hallway that goes full Inception, rotating to the point where she’s not sure whether she’s on the floor, ceiling, or one of the walls, and neither are we.
Then there is all the nudity. More specifically, all the penises.
Euphoria hasn’t even debuted yet and it’s already generated headlines for its equal opportunity full-frontal. A Hollywood Reporter story published earlier this week notes that in one episode, nearly 30 penises appear on screen, and while I did not count, that number sounds right. Between a locker room scene featuring a number of extreme close-ups of flapping phalluses to a lecture about the proper way to send a dick pic, complete with an erection-filled slideshow, I can honestly say I have not seen this many penises in a single TV show in my entire life. And yes, I did watch all of American Vandal season one.
Exposing oneself physically, regardless of gender, is just how contemporary young people communicate, the show argues. So does Rue in a pointed speech criticizing adults who urge young women not to share nude photos of themselves in the digital realm. “I know your generation relied on flowers and your father’s permission, but it’s 2019 and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love,” Rue says. “Stop shaming us. Shame the dudes who create password-protected online directories of naked underage girls.”
While Euphoria doesn’t shame anyone for posting naked photos of themselves, it does question Rue’s assertion that nudes are the currency of love. As much as they may share in the digital space, there’s a strong sense throughout Euphoria that these teens, whether they’re in romantic relationships or friendships, don’t really know each other. Everyone has secrets that they keep, and “I love yous” that they say casually but, based on what we see about other aspects of their lives, we know they can’t sincerely mean.
The exception to that rule is Rue and Jules, who become fast friends and seem to share an instant, genuine bond. Schafer, a newcomer, infuses Jules with a sunniness that belies the genuinely dark times she’s lived through in her short life. Rue, who still hasn’t found the sun yet, is drawn to her for that reason. Rue is still a mess, and Zendaya, divorcing herself permanently here from her Disney Channel days, captures her in all her bleariness, emotional neediness, and outright fury when she’s prevented from accessing the drugs she craves. In projects ranging from the Spider-Man movies to The Greatest Showman to The OA, Zendaya has already proven herself as an actress who’s capable of more range than she demonstrated on K.C. Undercover — although, honestly, she was quite good on K.C. Undercover! But Euphoria feels like a real breakout moment for her.
What I can’t ascertain after watching these initial four episodes is whether all the nudity, drug use, and sometimes violent sexual activity is justifiable. One can argue that this is what teen life is really like in 2019 and that Euphoria is just showing us that truth in unvarnished, albeit glossy and beautifully filmed form. That’s the kind of argument that will cause the parents of teens or soon-to-be teens to have a stroke, assuming they can get through even half of an episode of Euphoria without having one.
Even though the series is based on some of Levinson’s own experiences as an addict, my take on Euphoria is that it’s an exaggerated version of the realities that some high-schoolers confront in contemporary America. It presents extreme imagery in order to get attention, then, once it has it, hints at saying something more meaningful. Its approach is not that different from the way some teens, and for that matter, adults, handle their Instagram feeds. I have to think that maybe that’s intentional.
In a lot of ways, I hate to see that imagery. But as I often do when I scroll through social media, I also find while watching Euphoria that I can’t stop myself or look away.