When HBO’s Euphoria premiered in mid-June, the first aspect critics noticed was the abundance of graphic sex scenes and nudity. The 30-penis count in the locker room scene on the second episode, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”, generated headlines, think pieces, and humorous Twitter reactions.
The drug-fueled antics of the main characters – a group of high school students – are meant to provide a gritty and realistic snapshot of Generation Z. However, these antics often come across as gratuitous, and seem to exist solely for shock and sensational value: Look at the naked girl having sex in a pool at a crowded party! Look at that other girl tripping on molly and masturbating on a carousel at a carnival! Are you scandalized yet?
Euphoria tries too hard to be an important show about the hot button issues of the day: Opioid addiction, depression, cyber-bullying, slut shaming, toxic masculinity, and the list keeps going, but it never addresses any of these issues with much depth or gravitas.
The series begins with 17-year-old Rue Bennett (the excellent Zendaya) getting out of rehab after her overdose and returning home just in time for er junior year of high school. In voiceover narration, Rue tells us she has no intention of staying clean. Once she gets home, she visits her dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) to score some drugs. As a side note, Cloud has an uncanny resemblance to the late rapper Mac Miller, who died of an overdose in 2018. Whether this casting choice was intentional or not is unclear, but it feels wrong.
As Rue struggles with the cycle of addiction, she also narrates the lives of her classmates. There’s the power couple of Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie), an overly confident cheerleader, and Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), star quarterback of the football team. Their on-and-off toxic relationship often turns violent. There’s Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney), who is hyper-sexualized and slut-shamed by every boy she meets, and Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira), who gets into “findom” in order to explore her sexuality. And there’s Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), the new girl in town who recognizes Rue as a kindred spirit. The two develop an intimate friendship.
Euphoria is at its best when it focuses on the characters of Rue and Jules. The moment Jules – a trans girl who had only dated white cisgendered men – begins to explore the spectrum of her sexual identity by engaging in a romantic relationship with Rue, and later with another woman, feels sincere. The scene where Jules tells Rue that she is in love with her on the last episode, “And Salt the Earth Behind You”, and the two start making plans to run away together, poignantly captures the intensity and naivety of young love.
However, these rare moments of emotional complexity and honesty are overshadowed by the numerous melodramatic plotlines that never really go anywhere: Nate’s dad, Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), has a habit of preying on gay and trans people. On the first episode, he rapes Jules in a seedy motel. Nate finds out, so he catfishes Jules on a dating app and threatens her to stay silent. He also physically assaults Maddy. Fezco robs a rich doctor so he can pay off his suppliers, because, why not? It’s all a bit much. Euphoria wants to be prestige television, but it’s more like a soap opera – with the high production values that HBO affords its programming.
That Euphoria is a visually striking and highly stylized show – those long shots of Rue and Jules riding across town on their bikes are a thing of beauty – doesn’t always work out in its favor. Creator and executive producer Sam Levinson has been vocal about his own struggle with substance abuse and his desire to paint a realistic picture of the horrors of addiction. However, the stunning cinematography and impeccable neon-tinged lighting and makeup, which make the characters look beautiful, has the unintended consequence of glamorizing their drug-fueled behavior.
Rue tells us on the second episode: “Drugs are kind of cool… cool until they wreck your skin and your life.” And yet, we never see her wrecked skin, or teeth, or body. In her signature grunge look – oversized purple hoodie and black chucks – Rue always looks effortlessly cool. However, as the brutally honest Showtime series Nurse Jackie (2009-2015) showed us throughout seven seasons, there is nothing beautiful or glamorous about addiction. It is a harrowing experience, and Euphoria never quite manages to capture that.
The final scene on the final episode turns into a musical that sees Rue singing and dancing with a gospel choir and a marching band, which is meant as an allegory of her relapse. The scene is strangely moving and it shows promise that Euphoria‘s second season will narrow its focus on Rue and her battle with opioid addiction. But in its first season, Euphoria comes across as self-indulgent, pretentious, and unfocused. Just like a teenager.