'Euphoria': TV Review

Triggering for parents — but excellent.
6/16/2019

Boundary-pushing, real and exceptionally realized, HBO's new drama starring Zendaya tracks sex, drugs and rap in the life of modern teens.

There are a number of surprising and shocking elements in HBO's new series Euphoria, which deals with teenage sexuality, drug use, peer pressure and more. But maybe the most shocking of them all is that the show is infinitely more impressive than a glance at its headliners might suggest.

It stars a former Disney Channel actress and pop singer, Zendaya (The Greatest Showman). It was produced by Drake, among others from the music business, and written by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation, The Wizard of Lies) — the son of director Barry Levinson — who is still looking to cement his name. It has a long list of mostly unknown teen actors tasked with performing some harrowing modern-day coming-of-age stories steeped in bleakness. And it has the kind of trans plotline other series have struggled to present both accurately and respectfully.

The result? An early career-defining performance from Zendaya, who is an absolute revelation here; a similarly fantastic breakout performance from trans actress and model Hunter Schafer in her first major role; and strong work from Levinson, who created, wrote and directed (five of the eight episodes), getting the vehicle that emphatically announces his arrival.

Based on an Israeli series of the same title, Euphoria sees Levinson bring to life the extremely rough and harrowing world of teenagers trying to navigate drugs, sex, social media nightmares, broken homes, emotional distress and other life-comes-at-you-fast adolescent issues that so many shows about teenagers can't seem to grasp or get right (though the Netflix dramedy Sex Education comes closest). The difference with Euphoria is that there's nothing remotely funny about it, as Levinson steers unflinchingly into what many adults and particularly parents will be triggered (and maybe outraged) by while most teens will probably agree it's one of the few accurate visual interpretations of their life. (For everybody else, Euphoria feels like a next-gen version of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's Kids, from 1995, but with even more inherent, life-altering risks given that today technology is often used to capture your hedonism and then have it transacted throughout your social group and often beyond).

The series mostly revolves around Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old drug addict who overdosed the summer before we meet her, still looking to score fresh out of rehab. Levinson has said he used his own drug addiction to infuse that storyline and Zendaya is masterful at getting at the raw, honest emotions of someone who freely admits that being high (on basically anything) frees her from what gnaws inside her (she first steals the pills of her dying father; like others here, she only finds relief from life by numbing it, and other characters have parental deaths or just damaged parents to deal with).

Rue finds a friend in Jules (Schafer), a trans girl who is new to the school and whose past (forced psychiatric stays, a mother breaking down over Jules' search for identity) morphs into a present filled with harrowing, brutal sexual encounters. Together they try to makes sense of being broken, as do, in various ways, a multitude of other characters. It isn't until the fourth episode that Euphoria even hints at a minor stumble into a more predictable representation of teen behavior, but what comes before suggests that's an aberration. If the storylines do start to unravel a little bit moving forward, my guess is that that won't ultimately detract from the aspects that feel absolutely, graphically, unflinchingly real and earned.

I've seen the four episodes HBO sent out for review, and it's not just a joking aside to say adults (who will likely make up the bulk of the viewing audience) and particularly parents are the ones who might need a trigger warning as opposed to teenagers, who might view it more like a documentary. While there are some familiar teen tropes that other series traffic in — idiotic jocks, vapid cheerleaders, toxic (and annoying) relationships, etc. — they don't bubble up or over until that fourth episode, and even then don't undercut what's come before.

Zendaya displays a surprisingly acute ability to be instantly grounded and real, whether she's asked to be drugged out (frequently); at a remove from the sexual circus going on around her (forming or shielding her own identity); trying to go to school and function as something other than the girl people call a "ghost" because they thought she died over the summer; being a big sister to her impressionable little sister (who found Rue when she overdosed); or proving/lying to her mother that she's fine and won't relapse (she will). It's an exceptional performance. And Zendaya is also called on to narrate the series, a conceit that usually doesn't work but is rendered effective here by Levinson's easy riffing and insights: "I know you're not allowed to say it," Zendaya's voice tells us, above the colorful, gauzy atmospherics of the cinematography, "but drugs are kind of cool. Until they wreck your skin. And your family. And your life. That's when they get uncool."

And if you're thinking the narration dovetails into Rue's clean-and-sober turnaround, forget it. Euphoria is, at least early on, the anti-after-school-special about drugs. But that's just Rue's story. Around her and Jules there's a swirl of high school parties, enabling parents, dick pics, the porn-fueled sex education of teen boys, highness as a daily state of mind, narcotics anonymous, slut-shaming, slut-embracing, bullying and the tamping down of emotions just to survive. 

In a lot of ways, Euphoria is what parents are avoiding on their kids' phones, the hidden secondary social media accounts that document modern teen life in ways that are more advanced and reckless than what those parents are hiding about their own pasts.

It might not be every teen's story, but it's a story that hasn't been told quite like this in a while.

Cast: Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Jacob Elordi, Eric Dane, Nika King, Algee Smith, Alexa Demie, Maude Apatow, Sydney Sweeney, Barbie Ferreira, Angus Cloud, Storm Reid
Created, written and directed by: Sam Levinson
Pilot directed by: Augustine Frizzell
Premieres: Sunday, June 16, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)