‘Euphoria’ Review: Zendaya’s Provocative Series Mixes Bleak Teen Drama with HBO’s Prestige Polish

     June 16, 2019

From Romeo and Juliet to Rebel Without a Cause and The Outsiders to Larry Clarke, Harmony Korine, and Greg Araki’s Doom Generation: the kids have never been alright. Especially when they’re on a stage or screen. But Euphoria, HBO’s first foray into young adult programming, takes the terror and tragedy of coming-of-age drama to the next level with an unflinching dive into the icy, bleak darkness of being a teenager in 2019. With all the prestige polish of HBO’s cable legacy.

Created by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation), who also directs multiple episodes with abundant visual panache, Euphoria stars former Disney sensation Zendaya as Rue, a teenage girl bent on drugs and self-destruction in her need to escape the oppressive sadness and anxiety that’s followed her throughout her life. Rue, we’re told, was born three days after 9/11, a Gen-Z stand-in who’s entire existence lives in the shadow of America’s great 21st-Century tragedy.


Image via HBO

Rue spent the summer in rehab after an overdose, which almost cost her life and fractured her relationship with her little sister (Storm Reid), who discovered Rue in a pile of vomit and saved her life. Their fragile, slowly mending relationship provides some of the show’s best material, and while Zendaya is terrific throughout, she’s never better than when’s she’s playing a scene where Rue is with her family, or pondering the damage she’s done to them. Likewise, Euphoria mines a lot of potent drama from exploring addiction and the long, hard fight for recovery, though the show’s unflinching depictions of overdoses and the desperation of needing your next hit can be punishingly bleak.

The other series standout is Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl who’s new in town and proves a kindred spirit, instant BFF, and possibly something more to Rue. Chronically attracted to older, repressed men, Jules gets tangled up in a spectacularly soapy, tangled romance through her continual search for love on dating apps. Elsewhere, The Kissing Booth heartthrob Jacob Elordi gets to dig deeper as the dangerous, emotionally unhinged chauvinist jock Nate, who only runs scalding hot or icy cold and tends to deliver both emotions through violence or sex. The former jumps out at unexpected moments in some genuinely shocking, chilling ways. The latter usually involves Maddy (Alexa Demie), his on-again-off-again bombshell girlfriend who has some dubious morals of her own.

Euphoria’s first episodes are too aggressive by half and equally erratic, keeping the audience at arm’s length with affected sensationalism and a palpable sense of the holier than thou self-suffering of teenage angst. It is not an easy show to like right off the bat, especially when each new scene cascades into some darker circle of teenage hell; graphic statutory rape, copious drug use, self-harm, and overdose all come out to play in Euphoria’s first hour. And then there’s all the dicks. Yes, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, Euphoria features a staggering amount of male frontal nudity. There’s the locker room scene heard round the world, there’s unexpected flashing, dick pics – hell, there’s even a man with a micropenis jacking it directly into a camera for a teenage girl. Yikes. It’s all supposed to be shocking, and occasionally it actually is, even in a world inured by internet deviance.


Image via HBO

However, if you stick with it, and it doesn’t take long to see that there’s more to the series than shock value, relentless darkness, and flashy visuals. In the first four episodes provided to the press, the back pair opens up with a much-needed sense of humor, as well as thrilling use of tension and timing (especially in the outstanding fourth episode, structured around bringing the key players together at a local carnival).

As the series wears on, threading the needle of Rue’s fight for sobriety and Jules’ search for genuine connection, it also finds more time for standout supporting characters. That includes Sydney Sweeney‘s Cassie, a high school girl in a relationship with a college freshman who struggles to navigate her sexual desires and her public image, and Barbie Ferreira’s Kat, a plus-sized beauty who’s ridiculed at school but discovers sexual empowerment online in ways that are sometimes disturbing, but undeniably realistic. Much like Skins before it, Euphoria turns an uncensored lens on the dark happenings of teens in suburbia, refusing to edit out the sex, drugs, violence, and mental health that plague the human condition, even for teenagers.

Adolescence has fuelled the fires of storytelling since the age of myths, and it’s been a TV staple for generations, but the teens of the so-called “Generation Z” present a digital-era puzzle all their own. They’re the first generation to spend their entire lives with cell phones and internet access, who only ever knew post-9/11 America, and now, are staring down the barrel of adolescence during a growing opioid epidemic, the prime of cyberbullying and revenge porn, and one of the most contentiously divided political eras in American history. They’re the biggest, most diverse, most inclusive generation yet, and their entire reality has been shaped by the wired world that came after the digital revolution.


Image via HBO

Those same issues fuelled the crazy train in Levinson’s 2018 action comedy/blunt force sociopolitical allegory Assassination Nation, and in Euphoria, he returns to familiar material with the same naked, pot-stirring vulgarity that made the film so divisive. Once again, Levinson stares square in the face of the pornification of sex and intimacy. Again, he’s fascinated by the veneer of the nuclear family, the perverts next door, the real-life fallout from online trolling, and the contradictory power of nudes – the way they’re an expected part of 21st-century sexuality, while still possessing the power to pulls lives apart. And he’s still got a razor-sharp knack for delivering gut punch character turns, and moments of human nastiness that can take your breath away. Fortunately, Euphoria also has moments of affirmation, empowerment and the loveliness of intimacy to match.

Euphoria is a spectacularly photographed, intricately designed series with moments of horrifying honesty and insight, while also being trashy, soapy, and relentlessly provocative. It sometimes feels like the pornstar cousin of Riverdale – both series set up in a vaguely heightened version of reality where drugs, lies, and sinister parents wait around every turn – but Euphoria takes it farther at every turn. That’s not a bad thing, it’s often incredibly entertaining, and it certainly strikes at more productive, progressive territory than fellow boundary-pushing YA provocateur 13 Reasons Why.

Levinson began Assassination Nation with a massive list of trigger warnings. Likewise, Zendaya reached out to her massive social media following ahead of Euphoria’s premiere with some trigger warnings of her own. That’s probably not a bad idea. It’s a rough show that intends to slap the audience around a little along with its characters. I suspect that’s part of the point, though I can’t say Euphoria has necessarily earned its indulgences in the first four episodes, it certainly makes the most of them.

Rating: B-

Euphoria premieres on HBO Sunday, June 16.