File this under “mildly chagrined, but would still watch.” Euphoria is not a high-brow drama about teens. It’s a well-filmed horror show for parents where you’re supposed to eat popcorn and think about the good ol’ days. Hear me out:
Rue (Zendaya, 23) is back from rehab with no intent on getting better. Parents in this show are easily fooled, absent, or are predators hunting teens. She forms a friendship with the new girl in town, Jules (Hunter Schafer, 20). I guess Rue is tapped in enough with the cool kids to get invited to the parties, but not enough to have any actual friends other than Jules. In this sense, she’s floating in the middle of no where without anyone sensible to ground her, and has no interests other than drugs. We get the sense that this is tied to her father’s slow death from something probably like cancer.
Everything about this show is mega-angsty with no levity whatsoever—that doesn’t make it unwatchable, but it creates this very specific category of watchable that I find compelling while at the same time significantly depressing. I felt the same way about Skins and 13 Reasons Why. It’s independent of whether or not these shows are actually well written, but for me it does throw a glare of nonreality to them. There is tons of angst in being a teenager, but these shows tend to show the most extreme version of this—I don’t think this is because it’s supposed to echo reality, but because older people—particularly people with kids—are drawn to it the way we slow down on the highway when we see an accident. If you were to make a list of things that make parents clutch at their pearls, this show is a grab bag of them.
THE INTERNETS! Kids use it to share sex tapes of other students as a form of shaming or humiliation. To use anonymous sex apps to meet up with strange S&M dudes in hotels. To buy fake urine to pass drug tests that oblivious moms force you to take. They definitely don’t use it to watch people play games on Twitch, to make funny videos on TikTok, or to do anything of substance related to an interest or hobby.
THE DRUGS! Peak pearl-clutching: your daughter may be in a drug-dealers house and somehow be forced into a situation where she will literally have to lick fentanyl off the knife of a brown drug dealer with facial tattoos. Rue is apparently isolated enough that none of her friends are willing or able to say, so . . . maybe this is self-destructive? (Edit, I wrote the above after episodes 1 and 2— episode 3 is a little bit better at indicating that Rue is friends with Jules and Kat, although on the whole, I don’t think these friendships are three dimensional, which kind of makes the first person narration from Rue telling her friends’ stories not quite work for me. We’re supposed to see Rue-Jules as one of these hyperintimate female friendships you have when you’re young—episode three has a drop of this— Jules saying, “I can’t watch you kill yourself” and some of Rue being jealous, but not too much of their actual bond, which is mostly shown by them riding bikes).
BOYS AND SEX! Pretty much every male on this show is a horrorshow nightmare dumpsterfire. The only halfway decent one is the drug dealer (not the fentanyl one—the white one that Rue is friends with). There’s the one who sort of shames/ manipulates Kat (Barbie Ferreira, 22) into having sex with him in a roomful of other boys, only to post a video of it online. When she discovers this no one (even other girls) seems to have any empathy for her, even though one must imagine these other girls are dealing with the same horrorshow nightmare dumpsterfire boys. There’s Nate (Jacob Elordi, 22) whose sociopathic tendencies are starting to evolve into controlling behavior centered around his girlfriend (who in an act of revenge, has sex with an older boy [played by a 24 year old] in a pool in front of him, then lies about it later saying she blacked out.) Girls are either hypersexualized or being raped—nowhere in between. Jules has been talking to someone online and meets up with him at a hotel for a disturbing sexual encounter she does not seem to enjoy—the man involved turns out to be Nate’s father.
This show feels like a dark fantasy—I can’t use the word idealized because that has a positive connotation, but in this world, everyone is beautiful and makes terrible mistakes. There’s no compassion, no friendship, no awkwardly fumbling toward sexuality with a boyfriend who actually has a soul. No one’s laughing at anything except ironically. Recently I talked to one of my friends who’s a child therapist and she said high school has radically different tracks— if you were on the nerdy honor roll track, the notion of a party where someone might legitimately die of anything other than a peanut allergy seems outlandish. So maybe my own high school experience was just vastly different than licking fentanyl off a knife. It was closer to Freaks and Geeks except I really didn’t have friends to play D&D with.
It made me think about why we like these hyperdramatic shows about teens that take themselves super seriously in their negativity. Consider Skins where there is, I swear to god, a situation where Tony (high school student) is in some sort of dangerous situation in a warehouse where a scary dangerous guy demands that he (Tony) have sex with his (Tony’s) own sister (Effy) in order to placate the scary guy. Compare to Friday Night Lights where Julie feels pressured to just get sex “over with,” arranges alonetime with her boyfriend Matt (insert heart emoji), only to have him discover that she isn’t really ready and to suggest that they could just, like, hang out, which they do, making fun of each other’s feet and goofing around.
Think about how these shows mix sex and lurid things in a bid to be “real” or at least this is what they say they’re doing. But notice how they tend to cast actors that are a lot older; they want to show good looking people having sexy times, or maybe even really being in peril, but then there’s the conundrum about feeling weird about casting people ages 14 to 18, the actual age of most high school students. If they were actually working with actors that young, there’s a variety of things they’d have to more seriously consider, and we as viewers would have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. This isn’t a “real” show any more than Skins was. There’s actually a scene where Nate buys his girlfriend lingerie. I’m sorry, but when in the history of the world has a high school boy 1) bought his girlfriend lingerie and 2) it fit perfectly even though men who have been married for 10 years are still mystified by the whole bra/band/cupsize thing and also even if you know the size that doesn’t mean that any particular thing will fit you?
TLDR: Euphoria= listening to a superhip soundtrack while being stuck in the passenger seat of a car driving very quickly towards a brick wall with stylized graffiti on it.