If any subject has been mined to death in American film and television, it’s the idea that everything is not idyllic in the American suburbs.
Somehow, though, Sam Levinson, the creator and director of Euphoria, found a spark of life within that theme. His new teen drama, based on an Israeli series of the same name, premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO, and it’s already stirring up condemnation and panic thanks to its copious and graphic depictions of teen sex, drug use and self-harm.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of the season, and the first and fourth are especially terrific. The Drake-produced show centers on a biracial 16-year-old named Rue (Zendaya), who spent the summer before her junior year in rehab. Born three days after 9/11, Rue’s witnessed the 2008 financial crisis and her father dying of cancer. Before she started experimenting with the hard drugs that came with her father’s in-home hospice care, Rue was on a cocktail of prescription meds for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. She was a veteran pill popper by the time she’d entered middle school. Her best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), is new to town, and the two girls become fast friends after meeting at a party. Jules also happens to be a transgender girl.
“There’s nothing I’m really passionate about, ya know? Like, I’m not dying to say or do anything, really, and every time I admit that to people, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so sad,’ ” Rue admits to a friend at one of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the one person who clocks that she’s still high even as she’s proclaiming to be clean. “But I think that’s the case for most people. Like, when I look at my mom, or the kids at my school — like their profiles or their posts or their Tumblr rants — you realize they’re all just f—ed up too. And lost. They just have a reason to mask it. Whether it be like their families, or their boyfriends, or their hashtag activism.”
As Rue astutely observes, the others in her community have their own issues, which fall along a spectrum of teen drama tropes. Jacob Elordi plays Nate, a jock who falls for a girl who’s inappropriate for the strictures of his highly scrutinized social life. As Kat, Barbie Ferreira is a nerdy, horny girl who writes One Direction fan fiction on Tumblr and tries to reclaim some control over her body after footage of her losing her virginity gets uploaded to Pornhub. There’s a nighttime carnival where everyone’s lives collide in predictable ways. But, boy, is it engrossing to watch how all of these things are colored by the fact that they’re happening to Generation YouTube.
There’s been a spate of engaging, fun, sometimes thoughtful portraits of youth culture lately, including On My Block, Sex Education and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which are streaming on Netflix. The delightfully cringey PEN15 is on Hulu. Olivia Wilde’s movie Booksmart features two high school seniors dipping a toe for one night into the behaviors that are practically standard on Euphoria. Kay Cannon’s 2018 comedy Blockers encouraged parents to have more faith in their daughters’ ability to make intelligent decisions, especially about sex, by making them look like hovering, panicked idiots. Soapy teen dramas of the 2000s such as Gossip Girl, The OC and Friday Night Lights came equipped with a content restrictor plate by virtue of being broadcast network properties, as does the contemporary Riverdale, which airs on The CW.
Euphoria is different. It isn’t interested in the kids who have a cushy mattress of family wealth and acceptance to elite schools to soften whatever tourist jaunts they take through the valley of bad decisions. The security blanket of these other films and shows is that they tend to have happy endings. They’re full of girls who find their way back to sensible decision-making. And there was never a question that the feckless boy stoners in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared would somehow stumble through life without too many Big Problems.
Euphoria is more like Kids, the 1995 film starring Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny and Leo Fitzpatrick that scandalized audiences so much, the MPAA smacked it with an NC-17 rating.
Rather than simply being scandalized by the sex and drug use on Euphoria, viewers could take a breath and ask what its presence is telling us about the world of these teens. To borrow an example from another genre, both rape and consensual sex on Game of Thrones reflected the patriarchal nature of the Seven Kingdoms. They were depicted as natural consequences of the way gender functioned there: Women were dismissed and assumed to be either unworthy or incapable of holding power. Even female characters who escape gender-based violence, such as Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, are shaped by the atmosphere that harbors it.
What’s equally fascinating and disturbing about Euphoria is that it’s not set in a vaguely medieval universe full of giants, dragons and ice zombies. Its purview is suburban America, right now, and it’s not a pretty sight. Right alongside the existence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the heroines who inspire the dutiful good girls of Booksmart, there’s a country full of kids who simply are not all right, and the sex in Euphoria is symptomatic of that.
The show’s female characters find themselves feebly objecting to boys whose entire expectations around sex have been shaped by Pornhub and similar sites. That’s life for Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and her bestie, Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). I appreciate the consideration given to Cassie and Maddy in this series. Often, girls like them are dismissed as vain, airheaded sociopaths, and few seem interested in examining how the world made them that way in the first place.
In one telling moment in episode four, Cassie and Maddy meet up at the carnival. “Hey, you’re not having fun,” Maddy observes, after her boyfriend has admonished her for dressing “like a hooker.” “Me neither,” she continues, before blithely adding, “You wanna do molly?”
Cassie and Maddy aren’t high-flying, Yale-bound overachievers who read Rookie and fill in their meager sex ed with actual facts from Scarleteen. They’re both dating football players, and they have subsisted on a steady diet of contradictory messages telling them to be sexy but not slutty, cool but not careless, and that the best thing they can hope to be is hot. That ideology is upheld by their parents. Amy Poehler’s comedic take on the Juicy Couture-sporting, chardonnay-guzzling Cool Mom in Mean Girls has been supplanted by something much darker in Euphoria. Cassie’s Cool Mom is either oblivious or in denial about what’s happening in her daughter’s life.
Options are limited for girls like Cassie and Maddy. They can disengage from the social strata of high school or find a way to cope. Coping, in this universe, means reclaiming agency in bits and pieces and telling yourself that the decisions you’re making are your own, even when they’ve been shaped by a culture that has little regard for you. You concoct ways to make yourself matter: by having public sex in a swimming pool to make your boyfriend jealous, by participating in a beauty culture ruled by Instagram influencers and butt injections.
That is what powers the show through its equal-opportunity nudity. I have seen more penises in four hours of Euphoria than I have encountered in 30 years of television-watching. But none of this matters if the show isn’t any good. Penises and a plethora of scary-sounding street pharmaceuticals will only hold an audience’s attention for so long.
Levinson, thankfully, is interested in more than that. He opens each episode by focusing on a different character. Zendaya, as Rue, is an omniscient narrator for these sketches. Her delivery is flat without being monotonous, like a person who’s seen too much and is already, like, over it. Rue’s barometer for what constitutes normalcy is not like yours and mine, and yet Zendaya’s line reading goes a long way toward making you believe that maybe it’s not that far off.
The friendship between Jules and Rue is the show’s strongest feature. They’ve both been forced to grow up fast, in ways they’re ill-equipped to handle, and they are the ports in each other’s storms. I’m eager to see what the show does as its big secrets reverberate through the community it’s built. Moreover, I’m hoping that folks can see past the condemnations of its nudity and drug use, which are really unfulfilling escapes from the Age of Anxiety and a societal mess that’s been decades in the making.