Imagine dark, sexy teen drama Riverdale – now replace their euphemistic fictional drug Jingle Jangle with the real stuff and you’ve got something closer to HBO’s Euphoria which has just wrapped its US run and is preparing to launch in the UK on Sky Atlantic this week.
Zendaya lays her former life as a Disney star to rest playing Rue, a 17 year old drug addict (in various stages of recovery and denial) alongside Hunter Shafer’s Jules – a transgender teen who’s just moved to town.
Euphoria has a filmic quality to it, and like Skins or 13 Reasons Why before it, it’s pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be ‘teen’-drama – especially in the realm of sexuality. Personally the series gave me a sense of déjà vu – thinking back to my first time watching Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids.
Ostensibly showing us what life is like for modern teens in a world, not just of sex and drugs, but the expectations of internet porn, power-play, toxic masculinity and everything you hate about social media. The first two or three episodes behave like one of the teenagers they’re trying to portray – acting out and desperately trying to shock (CHILD DRUG DEALERS! LOTS OF PENISES! ONE DIRECTION SLASH-FIC!). We get it! This is cable! Calm the fuck down already!
Thankfully, once it DOES start to calm down, Euphoria rewards you for making it through (even if it does use A LOT of voice over. Like… “I couldn’t help but wonder…”/Sex And The City levels of voice over).
Zendaya is terrific as a teen struggling with her constantly conflicting fight or flight responses. Hunter Shafer gives Jules a degree of depth and verisimiltude only a trans performer could. There’s a subtly to Jules’ teenage exuberance, her exploration and her fear. The show doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of being a trans teen and Shafer elevates the role with genuine charm. Jacob Elordi’s Nate is the poster-boy for toxic teen male, but manages to make you still actually care. His is possibly the most complex and conflicted character in the show and it’s fascinating to see Nate unfold. All the cast add layers to characters that are at first glance really fucking annoying, but reveal themselves slowly over the course of the series.
Euphoria’s strengths lie in its performances and its ability to play with expectations – will Nate seriously hurt someone, will Lexi put herself in one risky situation too many, will Rue destroy her family? It’s playing in the grey areas around sexual expression and teenage experimentation. Individually the characters do horrible things, but aren’t necessarily horrible people. In one episode a guy starts to choke his girlfriend during sex because that’s what he’s seen in porn, and is surprised when she reacts badly.
Creator Sam Levinson mines his own experiences with drugs and recovery, giving Rue’s story a fresh ring of truth. The sex is transgressive for your average viewer, but probably less so for LGBTQ audiences. Is it being needlessly provocative by making the protagonists teenagers? Probably, but this is TV, not reality.
While I appreciate a lot about Euphoria, I can’t say I actually enjoyed watching it. It’s part of this wave of dark, nihilistic prestige TV that, for me, is getting incredibly tiresome. The real world is bad enough, I don’t need to watch The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror on top of the day’s news. But I can’t deny that it’s brilliantly produced television with a range of flawless performances across the board.
By Chad Armstrong
Euphoria is available on HBO now is the USA. All episodes will be available on Sky Atlantic in the UK Tuesday 6th August 2019.
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