If every generation gets the brittle, nihilist, painfully “real,” sexually joyless cultural rendering it deserves, then the good news for Generation Z is that Euphoria shows signs of progress. The 1980s had Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a coolly disaffected portrait of life in Los Angeles that featured heroin, rape, snuff films, and a 12-year-old sex slave. The ’90s had Kids, Harmony Korine’s bleakly disaffected portrayal of teenage skater kids sharing drugs and HIV. The 2000s had Skins, Jamie Brittain’s entertainingly disaffected British import about pill-popping, bed-hopping high schoolers. Each work sparked its own kind of moral panic, accompanied by a clamor of voices urging audiences to heed the alarming truth of How Young People Live Now.
Which, well, kind of. Less Than Zero, it transpired, was less an accurate picture of Gen X dysfunction than it was a book inspired by Ellis himself, with his Bennington College mystique, his “suitcase full of drugs,” and his father’s $40 million property commissions. Kids was mired in the predilections and obsessions of Korine and the director/photographer Larry Clark. Euphoria, too, is not so much an all-encompassing portrait of a generation than a work based on the writer Sam Levinson’s specific experiences of addiction, anxiety, and recovery. In its best moments, it’s a thoughtful, openhearted story about teenagers trying to navigate life as the first fully-online generation, test subjects in an unfettered landscape of dick pics, adult predators, and synthetic hallucinogens. But it’s also the kind of drama so relentlessly provocative—images of erect penises crop up with the persistence and frequency of weeds in springtime—that it prompts a question: Who is this supposed to be for?