Despite the fact that once career-ending scandals now happen to our politicians on a daily basis, a lot of people got into a bit of a tizzy over Euphoria. The teen drama created by HBO (the channel behind light-hearted fare such as Game Of Thrones and Chernobyl) caused a stir when it premiered in June proudly featuring almost 30 penises as well as graphic depictions of drug overdoses and sex. None of this is world-shattering if you’re in your late teens – Euphoria’s target audience – so it wasn’t particularly controversial for the people it was directed at. Skins handled it years ago, 13 Reasons Why is an inescapable hit and Billie Eilish sings about this kind of stuff at the top of the charts.
Putting aside the premature brouhaha, Euphoria is fantastic on its own terms. There’s a listlessness here that a lot of reviewers perceived as insubstantial that is oddly magnetic. It’s a seemingly nihilistic depiction of teens but with the way the world is unfolding and with one in five teens developing mental health problems, is it practical to expect a Pollyannaish vision? Zendaya’s narrator, Rue, is introduced as being born days after 9/11, so there’s no reason to pretend the world she’s grown up in is anything but bleak.
Thankfully, Euphoria never comes off as overly cynical, thanks to creator Sam Levinson’s vow of authenticity. The show’s portrayal of domestic abuse, of sexual assault, is all delicately handled and it’s clearly the result of deep research. Levinson, who pens every episode, made Euphoria’s writing process a collaborative one, moulding each character around the distinct life experience of the actor playing them, as well as himself, à la Larry Clark’s Kids.
Dramatically speaking, Euphoria spins a fair few plates as it goes along. Ostensibly it’s about Rue, a recovering drug addict and high school drifter, but Levinson branches quite quickly into fleshing out the people in her circle. This includes Hunter Schafer’s new girl in town Jules, Jacob Elordi’s toxic jock Nate, his girlfriend, Alexa Demie’s Maddy, and Barbie Ferreira’s blasé Kat. It takes an episode or two to get acquainted with everyone, but Levinson’s world-building is precise, and by the series’ end, you’re rewardingly intimate with everyone in the Euphoria universe.
As Rue, Zendaya is nakedly raw here, a level of understatement in her performance hitherto unseen. Unlike a lot of her Disney Channel peers she passed over doing teen movies to jump immediately into mainstream fare like The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Euphoria is Zendaya’s first leading adult role and it’s clear that it’s long overdue because she’s fantastic, combining the bone-dry impish charm she brings to MJ with a kind of exhausted vulnerability. Drug addicts are hard to play for young actors – there’s a lot of room to be overwrought – but Zendaya hits the sweet spot.
Her co-stars are all well cast, too. It’s insane that this is Hunter Schafer’s first acting gig because she’s an exquisite foil for Zendaya, the pair generating a rare chemistry that powers some of Euphoria’s best moments. The Kissing Booth’s Jacob Elordi does fine work, too, using his leading man status to play a truly odious jock. Meanwhile, Barbie Ferreira spends much of the season alone and totally holds her own, creating a character destined to be a new archetype for teen dramas to come.
There’s something in Euphoria’s first season (the second has already been ordered) that is faintly reminiscent of Big Little Lies’ debut outing. No character is more important than another and everyone operates in a world that unavoidably dictates their behaviour. Where Big Little Lies exploited the gossip-fuelled theatrics of Monterey, Euphoria uses teen trauma and legitimate feelings of isolation as its basis. There’s no invalidating or belittling of the young cast here, and despite its occasionally graphic nature, it’s all in the name of fidelity to the truth, to the realities that young people live today.
If Big Little Lies was HBO’s interpretation of Desperate Housewives as ‘prestige’ programming, then Euphoria is its highbrow answer to Skins. It’s also the first major TV series by A24’s small screen offshoot and it’s very much a marriage of the two studios. A24’s characteristically empathetic vision of youth is present here and there’s an unpretentious griminess to Euphoria that offsets the HBO sheen.
Euphoria knows that its formerly taboo themes are destined to provoke the most prudish censors, so it leans into it. A lot of Rue’s descent into drug addiction, into depression, is played with the intensity and taut nature of a thriller, making compulsive television akin to rubbernecking a car accident. Much like Big Little Lies, Euphoria doesn’t need violence to make it bingeable because these characters make so many ill-advised decisions, it’s anxiety-inducing enough without any huge set pieces.
Euphoria is a series that shuns labels in every sense – most teen dramas currently being pumped out foreground a certain issue; this series takes on everything without fanfare. There is no after school special treatment for Rue being biracial or Jules being trans or Kat being a plus-size girl. None of this is turned into a big issue, there’s no back-patting and these characters aren’t boxed in by their identities.
It helps that Euphoria counters its occasionally taxing subject matter with gorgeous visuals. A piece of striking cinematography that will end up on a viral tweet or a popular Tumblr gif-set is an easy way to lure in new viewers, so Euphoria turns up the dial. A24’s influence is recognisable in the faded neon lighting and unconventional framing Euphoria adopts, and there’s one rotating hallway sequence in the pilot that is destined to be studied by film students. Additionally, the costuming pays tribute to the teen dramas that have come before and the series’ nod to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is particularly wonderful.
If Euphoria stumbles anywhere it’s in its pacing, which is occasionally uneven, but by the time you notice that you’re already caught up in Sam Levinson’s carefully considered acid trip of a series. It’s an almost entirely character-driven series but that makes it no less thrilling, and it’s only graphic because it needs to be. So, if you want an insight into the dark side of Generation Z then Euphoria is waiting for you, warts and all.
Euphoria starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday the 6th of August at 10pm, and is available to stream on NOW TV from today.