An overdose, a statutory rape, a kid wristcutter, a brutal beating, sex in the pool, sex on a sink, drugs to swallow, drugs to snort, whatever the plural of “penis” is. So, yes, Euphoria is coming on strong in its opening episodes. The HBO series (debuting Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO) is a druggy-sexy-violent series about modern-day teenagers, with their smartphones and their Tumblr and their sexts and their infinite internet.
The show can be as exhausting as that sentence: The SoundCloud Rap of teen dramas, braggishly sad and suspiciously porn-y. When one character holds a knife on a jock during a house party, you notice how the jock is nonsensically shirtless, so the blade is like an arrow pointing right at his sixteen-pack abs. And the party looks like a music video, like everything else on the show. A stylistic attempt to capture the exultant feeling of being young and on drugs? Or are makers of Euphoria just focused on making teen sorrow look cool as hell?
The series adapts an Israeli drama, which I’ve not seen. This remake has been created by Sam Levinson, who does much of the writing and directing. Levinson previously made Assassination Nation, a model-gorgeous satire I found entirely unwatchable. Assassination Nation had the cinematic quality of, like, retweeting something dumb with a side-eye emoji: Trying to be sarcastic, actually just signal boosting. It’s clear that Levinson has thought a lot about teenagers today. The series premiere of Euphoria begins with Rue (Zendaya) narrating her life story: “I was born three days after 9/11.” She’s a 21st-century kid raised in declinist America, spiraling through prescription drugs while her fellow students watch their private nude pics going public online.
Admittedly, I don’t know anything about modern-day teens. Their life seems both easier and harder than how I remember my own high school days. They can find a gloriously specific community online, and then someone they’ve never met could use their social media information against them.
Euphoria has a large ensemble, and the most interesting characters feel torn between those two directions. They could only exist right now, and right now might very well destroy them. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) is a virgin with glasses, and that would’ve been her entire character arc a couple decades ago. On Euphoria, she’s an internet-famous fan-fictioneer who experiences unusual consequences from a sex tape. There’s a new kid in school, Jules (Hunter Schafer), an anime-loving girl who meets married men on a dating app. Jules happens to be trans, and she also presents as a healthy sex-positive free spirit in a school full of paranoids — though she also makes bad judgments fueled by apparent insecurity, leading to the most disturbing scene in the premiere. She befriends Rue, who’s fresh out of rehab and already using all the drugs again. Their scenes together are searching and generous, safe harbor in a storm.
The sexual content baits cheap controversy, and Euphoria fits into the Larry Clark-ish lineage of Xtreme Teen melodrama. The nudity is purposeful, in fairness: Part of the show’s point, restated constantly, is that these kids have seen so many elaborate sexual acts online. And, anyhow, humans do all have butts and privates — so, my dear doofuses on the Parents Television Council, why don’t you go get more angry at the parade of “family-friendly” TV procedurals where nominal heroes solve every problem with guns?
Still, I have legitimate concerns. Euphoria is often exploitative, wannabe “realism” that’s more like R-rated Riverdale without the wink. The second episode is ultraviolent to a degree that is just ridiculous. The violence involves Nate (Jacob Elordi), the aforementioned jock, who vacillates unbelievably between narcotized sorrow and supervillain-level plotting.
Zendaya embodies a certain quality of listless nihilism with Rue, but her overripe narration represents Levinson’s most tin-eared writing. “I didn’t build this system, nor did I f— it up,” she tells us. That dialogue sounds like a very thirtysomething notion of teen rebellion. Her home life can feel sketchy, despite the cheerful presence of Storm Reid as her little sis. Certain recurring elements are cartoonish: A sage little-kid drug dealer, a mom who never goes anywhere without a glass of wine. The plot can twist in silly directions. Eric Dane plays a man who meets Jules in a motel, and he fits into the larger show for spoiler-ish reasons that require a spicy chili bowl full of coincidence.
There’s something here, though. The third episode focuses more on Kat, whose relationship to the internet is legitimately complicated, evolving between hermetic terror and righteous exhibitionism. That episode also complicates the Rue-Jules friendship — and Zendaya and Schafer are a great pair. There’s a fascinating recurring character played by Colman Domingo, an adult drug addict who pushes Rue out of her spiral of cheap cynicism. The fourth hour is both the best and the most old-fashioned, an “Everyone Goes to the Carnival” adventure that brings multiple running plots to a head.
I don’t know. In episode 4, a character named Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) decides to get back at her boyfriend. She takes some ecstasy and starts flirting with a handsome hunk of man-candy. They ride on a carousel, next to each other on rocking horses. They start making out, their up-and-down motion shot with swoony-goofy romanticism. And then Cassie starts to, like, really ride the horse — you’ll never look at a carousel pole the same way again.
It’s a ludicrous moment that achieves an unnatural power, partially because of Sweeney’s fully committed performance (she was recently great in Everything Sucks! and The Handmaid’s Tale), partially because it’s boldly unclear whether Euphoria is aiming for arousal or farce. I worry this series will fall victim to its own provocations — and there is an ongoing threat of gorgeously filmed violence. In its quieter moments, though, this is a sensitive teen drama, digging past characters’ identities into their souls. B