Euphoria, HBO’s nihilistic drama about the terrifying life of contemporary adolescents, is a panicked teen trend piece turned up to “It’s so much worse than you think!!!” Created by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation), the show is excessive in the guise of being honest, its apparent knowingness smashing into the audience’s anxiety, and suddenly Tide Pods and rainbow parties seem like the least of it. In Euphoria, a whole generation is being lost to alienation, hedonism, hopelessness, porn, and drugs—I would have ended that sentence with an exclamation point, except that would not be in keeping with the series’ dirge-like vibe, its stultifying ennui. Euphoria is close to apocalypse fiction, but it doesn’t have the frisson of fantasy or energy of attempted escape. The null void of the future is already here, and it’s high school.
Rue (Zendaya), Euphoria’s protagonist, was born three days before 9/11, which she informs of us as an image of a fetus smash-cuts to the planes flying into the towers. (According to the Hollywood Reporter, Levinson’s original conception was for the camera to swoop between her mother’s legs and into her vagina.) “I was crushed by the cruel cervix of my mother,” Rue explains, sounding exactly like an overwrought teen, and I laughed—for just about the last time all series. As a young girl, Rue was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, and promptly medicated; later on, after the death of a parent, she found escape and quiet in drugs. As the show begins, she’s just getting out of rehab, and despite a near-fatal OD, completely committed to continuing to use.
Rue is jaded and hopeless and sophisticated, and the sucking emptiness of her addiction provides the series with its baseline vibe. But she begins to feel some joy when she meets Jules (Hunter Schafer), a new girl who has just moved to town. Jules, who is transgender, is a relative beam of light—she’s got joie de vivre—but she also regularly takes part in dangerous sexual scenarios, including one involving the father of a classmate. There’s a passel of self-aware popular girls whose nude pictures are passed around by Cro-Magnon bros, led by a jock with anger problems and a secret. His more sensitive friend can’t escape the influence of porn, and a chubby girl who is popular online winds up in a sex tape after losing her virginity to a stranger. There’s also a soulful drug dealer and a number of drunk and perverse parents. Euphoria has all the elements of a juicy teen soap, but the high school antics are curdled into their most sickening formulations, the fun sanded off till the skin is raw. Everywhere you look is only sadness and debasement.
Euphoria has plenty of antecedents, other teen incitements that push a frenzied kind of emptiness—Kids, Skins, Less Than Zero—but there’s an especial dullness to Euphoria’s provocation. For one thing, there is the relentlessness of its perspective, which makes room for every imagined teenage trauma or misbehavior but no room for joy, fun, or unsullied desire. For another thing, there’s addiction, which is boring. Like so many diseases, it’s in charge, and it reduces people to automatons, going through the same motions for the same high. Probably the best recent show about drug addiction, Russian Doll, was so wise about the essential monotony of addiction that it compressed the mandatory scene in which its protagonist gets really messed into a quick montage and instead addressed the repetition compulsion through a literal time loop.
On Euphoria, drugs are sad and grimy, but they happen again and again and again and again. This is similar to the show’s representation of sex, of which there is a copious amount, nearly all of it alarming. It’s prurient, but it doesn’t want to turn you on. It wants to rub your nose in the possibility that you would be turned on by all the dysfunction being displayed: the casual cruelness, the way even kind boys try to choke their partners without asking because they saw it in a porno. Euphoria’s presentation of sex as nightmarishly compromised—having basically nothing whatsoever to do with joy or fun or connection—is as prudish as anything, though it can be hard to discern that through the parade of porn and dicks.
Euphoria frames itself as showing us the real experiences no one else has the heart to show, the unvarnished, gnarly truth, and there’s something sticky and queasily self-punishing about this vision of a world where everyone is empty and miserable and they’re only 16. Before you succumb to the idea that high school students are joyless, self-numbing, in or about to be in a sex tape, though, I recommend that you a) lay eyes on an actual 16-year-old, who just by looking so much younger and gawkier than the actors in this show will remind you of the awkward physical comedy of youth or b) watch a semi-decent teen movie, like Booksmart.
I spent the day between watching Booksmart and starting Euphoria trying out my critique of the movie on unsuspecting friends and colleagues. I had homed in on a scene when Molly (Beanie Feldstein), the achievement-obsessed valedictorian, overhears a mixed-gender group of peers taking trash about her while she’s in a bathroom stall. It’s a classic teen movie trope, and it seems obvious where all of this is going—toward disparaging comments about Molly’s body—only to reverse course, an intentional inversion of expectations. Instead of calling her fat, as they seemed poised to do, one of the boys explains he would absolutely have sex with her if it weren’t for her “butter personality,” a twist on the term “butterface.”
The scene, like so much about Booksmart, is fundamentally positive: Here is a high school where women of all body types are openly considered hot, not shamed or castigated for their weight, and no one is shamed or castigated for lusting after them. This is not the world we actually live in, but that’s the point: Maybe with more movies like this, it could be. I found it well-meaning but limiting: It’s a scene that wants to be the change it wants to see in the world, at the expense of reflecting that world. A little more verisimilitude—which in this instance might have been one line of snark—and the movie could still have been woke and positive, while also having a little more heart, a little more pathos. (It also might help make sense of Molly, who as played by Feldstein, is so appealing it’s easy to slide right by her incomprehensible characterization, but that’s a harangue for some other time.)
I only had to watch the first episode of Euphoria to decide I owed Booksmart an apology: Though the movie makes no particular claims to realism, even with its positivity and hyped-up banter, I think it probably is more reflective of what high school is like, in total, than Euphoria. By way of comparison, Kat, the chubby girl in Euphoria—who, as played by Barbie Ferreira is also extremely appealing—is referred to and degraded as fat by literally everyone. In desperation to lose her virginity—“This is not the ’80s. You need to catch a dick.”—she has sex with a boy she has just met at a raucous house party, who records her without her knowledge or consent and then puts it on the internet, where nude pictures of all her high school friends already reside. Kat learns that she is desired from the comments on her sex tape, and she proceeds to have sex with a series of strange men, posting a video of herself dancing online so that still others can masturbate to her. Whatever positivity there is in this gets steamrolled by all-encompassing seediness, the series’ nightmare vision of what it is to be young and alive.
I liked Kat. As with Orange Is the New Black, Euphoria fills you in on the (traumatic, obviously) backstory of a different character at the beginning of each episode. After we learn how Kat was insulted and dissed and humiliated as a child, we learn that she’s famous online for having written fan fiction about Larry Stylinson, the pairing of One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. Her fan fic is briefly animated, and it’s one of the show’s highlights: It’s light, it’s funny, and, unlike almost all of the sex in the show, it’s kind of supposed to be sexy.
Euphoria and Booksmart both exist in a world in which teenagers attend unchaperoned house parties, they do drugs and fool around, girls are slut-shamed and gossiped about, and everyone watches porn. But it’s only in one that teenagers care about things beyond this very moment and are capable of happiness, goofiness, idiocy, innocence, kindness, and the entire spectrum of human feeling. That it’s easy to buy into Euphoria’s nihilistic vision of adolescence as distilled misery says more about us than it does about teenagers: Some people just love a good scare.