What Euphoria Gets Right About Adolescence Where So Many Shows Have Failed
When the original series of Euphoria was released in Israel, the show followed teenagers carelessly having sex and taking drugs. When their parents fleetingly appeared on-screen the cameras avoided showing their faces.
This technique has not been mirrored in the American adaptation of the show, but parental authority is similarly missing. Their absence isn't used to make the point that they're bad parents, but to highlight how little control adults have over their children doing what they want to do.
A new drama from HBO and indie film studio A24, Euphoria follows a group of high schoolers navigating all of the familiar adolescent issues of sex, narcotics, self-esteem and parental resentment. For Gen Z this entails dealing with revenge porn, prescription painkiller addiction and underage web-camming.
It's been called the network's most controversial and explicit show to date, with America's Parents Television Council calling it "extremely graphic adult content". One early scene in the series made headlines after featuring 30 penises, a record for television in case you were wondering.
The show opens with Rue Bennett (Zendaya) returning home after an overdose which left her in a coma. In a format later replicated for other major characters in the show, we fast-forward through her formative years, pausing on the moments which might be responsible for where she's ended up.
For some characters these episodes are clearly damaging—a pushy parent or the loss of a loved one—but with others it's less dramatic. For Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) we see her beginning to notice the way her dad's friends always rush to hug her, questioning the sometimes uncomfortable power that her looks have over men. In one of the most touching montages of the season, we see a young Kat (Barbie Ferreira) return to school after gaining weight over the summer holidays and her school sweetheart disowning her. It hardens her heart against feeling something so pure again.
Some of Euphoria's characters fall into American high school clichés (the cruel jock, the beautiful cheerleader, the misfit outcast) but some, like trans girl Jules (Hunter Schafer), feel refreshingly new to the teen drama world. For the most part it pits them against the battleground of growing up, rather than each other, and is better for it.
Ordinarily when TV tries to distill the current teenage experience it falls into two traps: either semi-glamourising drug taking, self-harm and eating disorders, like with Skins or 13 Reasons Why, or by using these issues as a one season plot-line that's deployed with jarring and tedious handwringing—see Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, The OC etc. Unlike so many middling teen dramas, Euphoria explores the realities of modern life for teenagers with sensitivity and honesty.
As such, there's many moments that feel truly bleak and without the sense that things are about to improve. Relationships are abusive, parents are violent, and phones lead to sex tapes, revenge porn, dick pics and statutory rape. If a reverse Parental Advisory sticker existed it might appear in the title credits.
But, as Bo Burnham captured in his recent film Eighth Grade, technology isn't the point in itself. Instead phones are just a reality Gen Z have never lived without, not something they agonise over detoxing from. In one early scene Rue gives a memorable seminar on dick pics, arguing they fall into three categories: "terrifying, horrifying, or acceptable". The analysis of dick pics here is their aesthetic value, not whether they are a scourge on young minds.
It's often dizzying watching, with camera shots zooming out of bedrooms to show a suburban house sliced open like a doll's house, or panning across along the tops of cubicles where teenagers are crying, kissing, snorting, vomiting or texting in each stall.
Euphoria marks daring new territory for HBO, and it's a trip worth taking for the substance underneath the shock tactics.