The Dark Teen Show That Pushes the Edge of Provocation

HBO’s Euphoria joins a long list of works that have appalled and thrilled in equal measure. But does it have more to say?

What defines Zendaya’s performance is her ability to quickly shift modes, communicating both Rue’s cynical, hardened edges and her vulnerability. (HBO)

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?

The protagonist in Euphoria is Rue, a 17-year-old addict played spectacularly by the former Disney Channel star Zendaya—a casting decision that practically ensures the show’s audience will skew younger than the typical HBO viewer. Rue narrates the show, starting with her traumatic birth (forced through “the cruel cervix of my mother, Leslie”), and then documenting the summer she first gets out of rehab. Her addiction, she explains, began with a panoply of different diagnoses including ADHD and OCD, and with medication that left her feeling numb even as it failed to alleviate her semipermanent state of panic. In a montage of lightning-fast cuts, Euphoria details the realities Rue grew up with: the aftermath of 9/11; obscene DMs from strangers; active-shooter trainings at school; ubiquitous, hard-core, violent pornography.

What defines Zendaya’s performance is her ability to quickly shift modes, communicating both Rue’s cynical, hardened edges—in one scene, she gives an old-fashioned slide tutorial on the art of the dick pic—and her vulnerability. Shuffling through the school corridors in skater shorts with a hoodie pulled over her head, Rue’s a truculent waif with impossible charm. In the first episode, as she describes in the voice-over the first time she got high enough to quiet everything inside her, the camera stays on Zendaya’s face the whole while as her features relax and contort. She makes even the show’s most outrageous moments, like Rue taking a hit of fentanyl off the knife of a cartoonish drug dealer with face tattoos, land.

Euphoria also finds its heart in Rue’s relationships with others, like her guilty bond with her younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid), who discovered Rue when she was overdosing and idolizes her. More loaded, and more intoxicating, is Rue’s friendship with Jules (Hunter Schafer), whom she meets at a party after Jules has publicly slashed her own arm with a knife. Jules, like Schafer, is trans, a fact that the show underlines only to explore Jules’s compulsion for risky sex with strangers and her dependency on being desired. For all the fanfare over Euphoria’s penis-festooned locker-room scene in the second episode, the most disturbing and questionable moment by far comes when Jules is shown having sex (an act of statutory rape) with a much older man (played by Eric Dane). Augustine Frizzell, who directs the pilot, portrays Jules’s obvious physical pain, and her helplessness, in a way that feels almost obscene.

The strangest thing about Euphoria’s most quote-unquote shocking interludes is that so few of them seem to be integral to what the show does best. Rue’s fragmented internal state, her frantic desire to use, and the powerful connections she forges with others that momentarily console her, are the most interesting things to watch. Otherwise, the series’ attempts at portraying modern teenagehood can seem exploitative. Levinson’s proliferation of graphic sexual imagery is defensible as a way to communicate how much it saturates life online—to what extent kids and teenagers are exposed to unsolicited and unwanted content at all moments of the day. (“I know your generation relied on flowers and father’s permission,” Rue explains assertively in a voice-over, “but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us.”)

In other scenes, though, Levinson seems only to want to scandalize. The story of Kat (Barbie Ferreira) features the degrading loss of her virginity, followed by a foray into cam-work that the series questionably suggests could be empowering. (Kat’s NSFW Skype call with an obese middle-aged man who wants to be humiliated for his micro-penis is murky in its motivations.) If Euphoria wants simply to terrify parents with the darkest corners of an unrestricted search engine, that’s one thing. But the show also has a clear, meta grasp of how influential works of pop culture can be. The teenagers in Euphoria get their formative sexual education on Pornhub, but they learn about love from My So-Called Life and Gilmore Girls. Levinson even stages his locker-room scene as an inverted homage to the opening sequence of Carrie, which lingers pruriently and uncomfortably on the fully naked bodies of teenage girls.

In that sense, Euphoria’s provocations can feel as blasé and as cynical as Bret Easton Ellis’s fictional gang rape of a drugged 12-year-old. Trolling the Family Research Council with graphic scenes of underage sex, violence, and drug use is easy to do. What’s harder is using the same kind of imagery and action to make a point, or a change. From the first four episodes of Euphoria, it’s hard to discern whether the series will take advantage of its magnetic stars Zendaya and Schafer, and their palpable chemistry, to tell a different kind of story from the glumly incendiary ones we’ve seen before.