HBO pivoted to streaming back in 2020, but the channel still holds the media conglomerate crown as the Queen of Appointment Viewing Television. Though Showtime looked like it might give them a run for their money with its sleeper hit Yellowjackets, HBO Max has found huge success with the Zendaya-led, addiction drama Euphoria, which, after a two-year break, is now shattering its own series ratings records.
While the much-anticipated return of Succession last fall launched nine straight weeks of live-tweeting, showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s name never trended, despite “Kendall,” “Shiv,” and “Cousin Greg” blowing up late on Sunday nights and early on Monday mornings. And of course it didn’t: no one is cursing Succession’s showrunner over Shiv’s perpetual corporate incompetence, or Kendall’s tendency toward emotional breakdowns. No one attributes a fictional character’s malfeasance to the marionettist show creators, floating above the fray with a camera in hand. After all, that’d be a really weird way to engage in a discourse about your favorite television show.
And yet, here we are, another week into Euphoria’s eight-week run, and nearly every character or cast member’s name has trended on Twitter multiple times. And many of the most hilarious and absurd post-viewing tweets, memes, and reactions namecheck a person that Zendaya’s character Rue wouldn’t know by name: Euphoria creator-writer-director-showrunner-multi-hyphenate Sam Levinson. Last Monday, about 21 hours after the episode aired, I noticed “sam levinson” trending on Twitter, with over 49,500 tweets calling him out by name. And that’s far from the first time I’ve seen this.
They’re not just talking about Levinson in relation to his writing for each episode. What they’re saying about him is far more intense: Highly critical fans are mulling over his eternal damnation. They’re bemoaning the sexual interests and escapades of his characters (and accusing him of having non-narrative reasons for including them). They’re even jokingly threatening drastic actions if their favorite characters don’t make it out of this season alive.
Scores of viewers like the show enough to spout off hundreds of thousands of tweets and TikToks, fretting over the fates of its (perhaps too many) characters and plot points. But they also find themselves so aggravated with these developments that they take the time to fire digital missives not just at Euphoria the show, but at the man behind Euphoria. And these brassy critiques often move beyond just the show itself, aiming at his entire career. As writer Iana Murray put it in her most recent Euphoria recap for Vulture, Levinson’s writing and “his provocations … are not only a frequent target of criticism but a bona fide meme at this point.”
How did the Euphoria discourse move beyond all the on-screen teen drama to the off-screen social media drama with a target set on the man who brought the show into existence? I, an ambivalent Euphoria expert, will attempt to explain.
What is it about Euphoria that causes Twitter and TikTok to erupt every week?
Like much of the great appointment viewing television that came before it, Euphoria is provocative (just ask the drug use prevention organization, D.A.R.E.) and sometimes outright shocking. From its full-frontal nudity and gritty child drug dealers to its fancam-worthy cast of characters and often gutting depiction of young queer love, the show prompts tons of online debates and theorizing. Euphoria’s pithy (and ridiculous) dialogue and psychedelic cinematography also make for plenty of mega-viral posts across myriad platforms, featuring screencaps and short clips.
This sounds like a lot of fun!? So how does the creator himself factor into this ~ discourse ~?
It is! Well…to explain that, I need to give you a little more insight into who Sam Levinson is.
Okay, who is this guy?
Levinson is a filmmaker that has been in the biz since his first acting role at seven years old. He’s collaborated in the past with his father—Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson— and released a handful of his own feature films, like the 2018 thriller Assassination Nation.
Euphoria is the project that launched him to prestige, maybe even household name-status. In addition to being the creator of the show, Levinson directs most of the episodes. He also is the sole writer credited for every episode, save for the co-writing credit he shared with actress Hunter Schafer on her character’s special episode from early 2021.
So the show is basically his baby. What’s the problem?
For the Euphoria fans online who don’t follow Deuxmoi or read Reddit, their aggravation with Levinson might just be rooted in a general dislike of where the show’s headed this season. Many of the social media complaints about Euphoria center on certain characters and plot-points that have been seemingly abandoned in favor of a shifted focus on characters many fans consider to be loathsome, like Cal and Nate. With a single writer’s name popping up immediately in the credits (and remaining there under the headers “created by” and “directed by”), it’s only natural that fans would focus their attention—and frustration—with the show’s disjointed developments wholly on Levinson.
Isn’t that just a sophomore slump?
According to the internet: It’s complicated. There’s much more at stake for them than just a few mangled subplots.
While the plentiful male and female nudity in Euphoria has stirred a bit of controversy since its 2019 premiere, a recent interview in the Independent with actress Sydney Sweeney prompted a social media furor that invigorated the drama to an all-time high—and directly pointed it at Levinson. Sweeney mentioned how, in the process of filming, she requested that her character Cassie not appear topless in certain scenes, even though they were initially written by Levinson that way. Though Sweeney took great care to clarify Levinson’s openness and agreeability to these requests, many fans began to note that Cassie is still regularly featured naked in the show and questioned whether it should be an actor’s responsibility to dial down the nudity on a show about teenagers. Some viewers have even claimed (with varying degrees of seriousness) that Levinson’s writing of Cassie is exploitative of Sweeney.
Okay, that seems a little unfair, if she said she’s okay with it. I also think this analysis seems to ignore Sweeney’s agency as an actor, something that the full interview covers. What else are they mad about?
Another big drama involves actress Barbie Ferreira’s fan-favorite character, Kat. So far in season two, Kat has gone from a confident cam-girl leading lady to a dissatisfied, self-loathing, C-plot girlfriend. Compounding her absence on screen are rumors about creative differences and a fight on the set between Levinson and Ferreira, which have been swirling on Deuxmoi and other anonymous gossip accounts. That post alleged that Ferreira didn’t agree with Kat’s second season plot, got into an argument with Levinson about it, walked off the set, and in retaliation, Levinson cut her role down dramatically.
Though nothing has been confirmed by reputable sources or the involved parties, that hasn’t stopped fans from attributing Kat’s disappearance to Levinson’s supposedly vindictive response. Fans have also expressed a similar frustration (though this one has no dubious rumors prompting it) about the departure of Algee Smith’s character, Christopher McKay, who, in addition to being the show’s sole Black male teenage character, was prominently featured in Euphoria’s first season. He hasn’t made any additional appearances in the show since a small scene in the season premiere.
But that Kat situation is just a rumor!
Right, but the thing about Euphoria is that, while the story can be fragmented and inconsistent, certain characters—along with their costumes, makeup, and the actors who play them—have become Gen-Z icons. If you’re caught up in the visual splendor of some striking makeup on your favorite Euphoria girl, you’re more likely to forgive some plot holes, and you’re probably going to want to recreate the look. TikTok has also allowed fans to put on a hot outfit and relish the pitch-perfect delivery of a particular character’s cutting line. An entire meme-mythology has been built around actress Alexa Demie. Plus, there have been sequences in the show—namely, Kat’s season 1 epiphany that “there’s nothing more powerful than a fat girl who doesn’t give a fuck”—that particularly resonate with the show’s young viewership and their politics.
All this to say: There’s a huge fandom around particular characters, and the rumors that swirl around Ferreira, Levinson, and Kat are easier to buy—or at least affirming to believe when confronted with a new season that abandons Kat’s empowered sense of self.
Okay, that makes sense. What else is driving the fans up against the creator?
Other concerns with the trans and lesbian representation on the show have also been a dominant theme in the online fan reaction to this season. Critic and filmmaker Drew Gregory has written in Autostraddle about how the show’s queer and trans characters have felt off, attributing these inaccuracies to Levinson’s singular writing: “Instead of acknowledging his limitati ons, he has stubbornly insisted on writing the main seasons himself unlike any other ensemble show on TV.” Fans, too, have pointed out the show’s fraught representation and muddled depictions of LGBTQ teens.
Whew, that’s … a lot. Has Levinson responded to this in any way?
He hasn’t responded to the Euphoria-related discourse, but many critics and fans interpreted the script of his 2021 feature film Malcolm and Marie as a middle finger to those that critiqued him–and his 2018 film Assassination Nation—in the past. Critic Robert Daniels wrote in the Guardian that the film “turns into a self-indulgent excuse to whine about [Levinson’s] critics through the mouthpiece of John David Washington.”
In response to the Malcolm and Marie backlash, Levinson told the Los Angeles Times that he “wrote a Black character. He is a filmmaker. You want to say a Black filmmaker working in Hollywood is not going to have an issue with some of the things going on — with critics, producers, executives? He’s going to have some grievances and he should have the freedom to make fun of the things he wants to.”
Though Levinson hasn’t acknowledged any of the burgeoning discourse around Euphoria Season 2 thus far, another Euphoria crew member, co-producer Jeremy O. Harris, might have activated the Streisand Effect with his own social media response (lest we forget that pretty much all of this backlash is occurring on social media). Harris, the Tony-nominated Slave Play playwright who has churned up his own share of controversy, defended Levinson in a recent, off-the-cuff TikTok. After clarifying that it’s been entertaining to see fans swap theories and takes on the app, Harris said, “What’s not fun is seeing people make up things about someone who’s very close to me, who’s been the best boss I’ve ever known, who’s one of my best friends, whose son I’m the godfather of … based on conjecture and gossip websites.”
What does it mean for Euphoria that so many fans hate its creator? I mean, they’re still watching the show, after all.
Ultimately, it doesn’t mean much! Levinson’s name will likely continue to trend on Twitter for the remaining four Monday mornings that follow Euphoria’s Sunday night slot. People will still tune in, they’ll still tweet their complaints, and they’ll still break down all the things wrong with the script on TikTok. A good example is this fan’s recent post-episode analysis, scored (of course) by Euphoria’s striking background music, in which she struggles to square the stunning shots and visuals against the show’s “shit-on-a-stick writing.”
There’s a case to be made that people tune in precisely because they enjoy these engaged critiques—and outright hater behavior—that emerge online following each episode. As this TikToker says in the clip above: “I am so aggravated by this show and I will watch absolutely every episode. See you next week.”
But maybe, just maybe, Levinson will hire a few more writers to work alongside him for the next season to get this all to stop—or at least to divvy up the angry tweets among a few more folks.