Pop Culturing: 'Euphoria,' on HBO & Starring Zendya, is a Gen Z Nightmare

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Wednesday June 19, 2019

Hunter Schafer, left, and Zendaya, right, in a scene from "Euphoria."
Hunter Schafer, left, and Zendaya, right, in a scene from "Euphoria."   (Source:Eddy Chen/HBO)

The teen drama has had somewhat of a recent renaissance of late, thanks to edgy shows like "Riverdale," "13 Reasons Why," "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" and others. But HBO's new series "Euphoria," which airs on Sundays, takes things to a new level; it's a provocative and explicit show that ought to cause a stir both among teens and adults.

Based on the Israeli series of the same name and created for U.S. TV by Sam Levinson, "Euphoria" follows a group of high school teens in a Los Angeles suburb who are coping with the sick, sad world around them. The show mostly focuses on Rue, played by Zendaya in what may be her best and biggest role to date. Rue is returning home and integrating back into her high school and family after a stint in rehab. But she's quickly falling back into her old ways as she becomes friends with the new girl Jules (Hunter Schafer), who is trans and struggling to fit in. The show focuses on the two of them but also follows a few different cliques that orbit around each other in surprising ways.

A good primer for "Euphoria" would be the divisive 2018 film "Assassination Nation," directed and written by Levinson. It is a stylish pop-art and violent revenge story that takes on some of the biggest cultural issues teens face today. It was big swing that didn't really work but it definitely garnered attention when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year. With his TV show, Levinson is able to spend more time with the ideas he wanted to tackle in his movie, stretching them out and over the four episodes provided for review he takes the time to let his characters develop while dialing back some of the spastic energy that weighed down "Assassination Nation."

Zendaya, right, in a scene from "Euphoria." Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

Though thematically similar, "Euphoria" is more of a sobering viewing experience than the cartoonish "Assassination Nation"; it is a wild ride that isn't for the faint of heart. "Euphoria" still keeps the Tumblr-aesthetic that made "Assassination Nation" stick out from a crowded festival, most notably fast cuts to jarring images that punctate characters' inner turmoil. "Euphoria" also features lots of whispery voiceover from Rue, who in the first episode, announces she was born shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the first images that were ingrained in her after being born were the Twin Towers in flames. She constantly offers this kind of insight as well as voiceover for other characters in the show.

From drugs, sex, race, hookup culture, sexuality, gender identity, toxic masculinity, gender norms, the Internet and much more, there isn't a racy subject "Euphoria" won't explore. What separates the show from its contemporaries (besides its explicit scenes) is that "Euphoria" is less concerned about plot and feels more like a mood piece. The plot is in service to how the characters are feeling or what they're currently going through. Though in episodes three and four, an interesting plot does begin to take shape, involving Jules and a mystery man that she meets via a dating app. It climaxes in an incredible episode that takes place at a neon-lit carnival, echoing Alfred Hitchcock's thriller masterpiece "Strangers on a Train" (a film that's referenced a few times during "Euphoria" and sort of serves as the show's mantra.)

Hunter Schafer, left, and Zendaya, right, in a scene from "Euphoria." Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

Fans of teen dramas may find "Euphoria" similar to the popular mid-00s U.K. series "Skins" but even that show feels tame in comparison, which results in one of the show's biggest problems. It's hard to figure out who "Euphoria," HBO's first teen show, is actually for. The show is too racy for Gen Z kids (although, who is really going to stop them from watching; thanks to the internet, they've likely been exposed to a lot worse) and too foreign for most adults (as a 31-year-old man, I have no idea what L.A. teens are actually like). "Euphoria" feels like a candy-color fever dream that's simultaneously elusive and gripping. It'll take a while to tune into the show's frequency but each episode is better than the last; the back-half of this drama ought to be fascinating.

"Euphoria," which is a production of the super-chic indie company A24, comes to HBO at an interesting time. The network, facing the upcoming battle of the streaming wars, is expanding. For decades it owned Sunday nights — the only night of the week when HBO aired original programs. That's changing as the network is sprawling out to dominate Monday nights, too. It already had huge success with "Chernobyl," which turned out to be not only a ratings hit but one of the best reviewed TV shows of all-time. HBO knows what it's doing with "Euphoria." It knows it needs to draw in a new, younger audience — people who aren't tuning into the network for the frantic drama of "Big Little Lies" or the depressed hitman "Barry." Whether or not "Euphoria" is actually a good TV show sort of doesn't matter. With news over the show's controversy (30 penises, oh my! Laura Ingraham isn't happy!), there's a good chance "Euphoria" will be just what HBO ordered.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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