Listed on its IMDb page as HBO’s first teen drama, Euphoria arrived on screens under a blaze of hype, publicity, controversy and conversations over its content, not least some descriptions of the show describing it as something that would make Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why look like an ‘after school special’.
With a visually striking poster campaign made up of lead star Zendaya in visually striking lighting, if you’ve ever asked yourself what a teen drama would be like coming from the famed stable behind the likes of challenging, acclaimed series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, then Sam Levinson’s provocative, daringly confrontational series is your answer.
There have been teen characters in HBO’s series before; Lauren Ambrose’s portrayal of Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, coupled with the writing from the likes of creator Alan Ball and future Transparent creator Jill Soloway felt raw and real in a way that was refreshing and honest compared to the likes of Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill (nobody ever stole a dismembered foot on any network teen series, not even Freaks and Geeks), not to mention AJ and Meadow on The Sopranos and how they managed with having to be teenagers growing up with a gangster father.
Euphoria marks the first HBO drama to put teen protagonists front and centre and it manages to be everything one would imagine a teen drama from a stable like HBO to be. We are a million miles away from the sort of glossy fantasies that the likes of networks such as The WB and The CW have given us, occupied by the likes of Dawson Leery and Rory Gilmore, and while Netflix has delivered the hard hitting 13 Reasons Why and its graphic depictions of teen suicide and rape, it’s also provided audiences more escapist fare such as the wonderfully brilliant and funny Sex Education and movies like the incredibly lovely To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, on top of basically providing current teen idol Noah Centineo with his entire list of IMDb credits it seems.
There have been more edgier fare for sure such as Channel 4’s Skins, which similarly courted controversy for its content when it debuted, not to mention launching the careers of the likes of Dev Patel and Kaya Scodelario, but even that series has nothing on the sense of confrontation and darkness the greets viewers upon Euphoria.
A remake of the Israeli series of the same name, Sam Levinson’s drama was instantly a controversy magnet, especially for conservative groups such as the Parents Television Council, but then again when have they not had a problem, and while there is much here that is shocking, and sometimes Euphoria does feel as if it’s courting shock to gain the audience’s attention, there’s also so much to be impressed by over the course of it eight hours.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way; there is a lot of penises on display, particularly in its second episode that set a record that one never realised that was ever set to be broken, and while the sight of the former McSteamy Eric Dane playing a character with a clearly erect penis (prosthetic of course) as he’s about to have sex with a character who is seventeen feels as if it’s daring to court controversy, the development of its cast of characters, the handling of much of its subject matter, particularly drug addiction, and the brilliant way in which it’s filmed (as well Levinson directing, former House and Once Upon a Time actress Jennifer Morrison calls the shots on one episode) means that Euphoria cannot help but impress throughout its eight hour run time.
At one point during an episode, a poster for the movie Carrie can be spotted, and it’s clear that Levinson is a massive fan of Brian De Palma and 70s horror films in general; the fourth episode boasts an impressive Steadicam shot straight out of the De Palma hand book, an elegant building of suspense and even the use of Pino Donnagio on the soundtrack, albeit from Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, brilliantly utilising the main romantic theme of that movie for a similarly tender love scene here.
While De Palma’s films may frequently be criticised for their shocking treatment of women in violent situations (quite rightly even though it’s hard not to be easily impressed by split screens and Steadicam shots that take the breath away), Levinson’s series and his camera appears to be a lot more interested in the male form than that of females. HBO series frequently rely on female nudity, sometimes to an uncomfortably exploitative degree (hi there, True Detective season one and Game of Thrones, how you been?) and while there is some female nudity here and teen sexuality on display that frequently threaten to become exploitative in a manner that Gregg Araki would clearly appreciate, Euphoria never loses sight of its more emotional goals.
The story telling on display here is sometimes breathtaking in its quietly epic scope, with each character being given a brilliantly delivered backstory in each episode’s teaser, complete with voiceover from Zendaya’s character Rue that could easily take up an hour of television on their own. That they make up the first ten minutes or so just before the title card appears and are so good they could almost be released as their own short films.
In fact, Euphoria offers some of the most visually impressive television of the year; every shot is lit and shot to near perfection, with gorgeous use of lighting throughout, but it also offers some lovely humour to go with scenes that are frequently dark and disturbing. Nothing is off the table here; sex, statutory rape, drug abuse, drug addiction, unrequited love, physical abuse and sexual violence all get explored here.
There are moments when it threatens to overload itself into just being shock for shock’s sake, and admittedly there are moments in the first episode that feel as if they’re there just to ensure you come back for more, but the series does settle into some of the best teen drama in forever, and instantly makes something like Riverdale look like literal tripe.
Like the current Archie adaptation (remember when it was so good in that first season), Euphoria is a visual feast with some of the best lighting on television, and under other hands could have become an empty vessel for dazzling visuals and shocking content, but it never falls into that trap, and the more hard hitting drama, when it hits it does so with potency and power, not least when it deal with Rue’s addiction, in the present, and flashbacks that deal with how her addiction nearly destroyed her family.
Yes, this is HBO so it can get away with the grim honesty and daring filmmaking tropes on display here, but it’s also magnificently consistent and daring with what it sets out to do. There is a danger that the series could be a perv-fest what with its teen protagonists and the amount of nudity and sexuality on display, but it has Levinson’s brilliantly constructed scripts to back them up.
At the centre of it all is a superb central performance from Zendaya who gets a chance to take Rue, who could have been just another variation on her MJ character from Spider-Man, and turn it into one of the most complex characters on television this year. Her friendship and possible relationship with Jules, an equally impressive Hunter Schaefer, is the heart and soul of the series and gives Euphoria a lovely chance to play in the realm of an unrequited relationship that will leave your stomach and heart in emotional knots.
In some respects it plays with a similar level of romantic drama that is the bread and butter of network teen dramas; think Dawson and Joey, or Joey and Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, or even Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life, which gets referred to here at one point, but it builds around character arcs that feel even more honest and raw in a manner never displayed before. Jules is a wonderful character, but her obliviousness to some of Rue’s feelings in the final episode feel hurtful, made even more so by Jules’ lack of awareness of the matter, and the final train station-set goodbye in the finale stings so much, even though we know there’s going to be a second (possibly final) season to carry the story on.
Is Euphoria problematic? Well, yes, it is that too. The shocks are extreme and to be honest, as good as it is, the target audience are potentially unable to watch it due to the series probably being scheduled or given an age rating that is above them (no doubt any DVD or Bly Ray release will be an 18 in the UK) and yet it’s so damn brilliant that one cannot help but go with it. It’s not a feel good show, yet there are moments of levity and humour, particularly from a scene stealing Maude Apatow, that lighten the load considerably, and that sardonic charm that Zendaya clearly has in spades in Spider-Man does spill over here, particularly in a sequence that sees her and Apatow’s character Lexi play their characters like a Morgan Freeman-starring cop movie from the 90’s.
At eight episodes, it never outstays its welcome and the final moments showing Rue descending back into drug addiction are uncomfortable, audacious and brilliant, yet unnerving, somewhat extreme and genuinely shocking and distressing while also being breathtakingly imaginative.
In fact, it’s a sequence that sums up Euphoria perfectly in a nutshell.