HomeTelevision'Euphoria' Review: A Teen Soap For the End Times

‘Euphoria’ Review: A Teen Soap For the End Times

Euphoria HBO Zendaya
Photo Credit: HBO

Euphoria opens with a POV shot of a baby being born, announcing to audiences that yes, it is that kind of show.

That baby is Rue, our main character, who we quickly see grow from a newborn to a 16-year-old who has just finished her first stint in rehab. As played by former Disney channel star Zendaya, Rue serves as a narrator for this wild introduction to what is sure to be a unique new series. Rue, we learn, was diagnosed with a host of mental health problems at a young age, and has been heavily medicated ever since, eventually leading to an opioid addiction and a brutal overdose. While she may have spent her summer in rehab, Rue has no intention of staying clean and, in fact, buys drugs again almost immediately after leaving the facility. Why? Because the world is ending. Not literally, granted, but anyone paying attention to the headlines in 2019 will know exactly what she means.

And this is where the show gets interesting: Euphoria is a teen soap opera set for what feels like the end times. As Rue’s narrative diverges into the lives of various other troubled teens, the common thread connecting them all is the overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Sure, all teens are uncertain about what direction their life will go in after graduation. But Euphoria zeroes in on something that has thus far been unexplored by Hollywood: the fact that most teens don’t know if the world they’re growing up in will even be around by the time they reach their 30s.

The other teens on the series are a motley bunch, many of whom are going through a “ripped from the headlines” problem designed to scare parents and help teens relate to the series. Fezco (Angus Cloud) is a drug dealer, Chris (Algee Smith) is learning horrifying lessons about sex from porn, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) wants to lose her virginity, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) was just the victim of a nude photo leak, and Nate (Jacob Elordi) is a transphobic bigot of a football player with a drinking problem.

But the most significant of these characters is Jules (Hunter Shafer), a trans girl who is new to town. In the first episode, she begins a disturbing relationship with an adult man (Eric Dane) she meets through a hook-up app, but also becomes close with Rue – a relationship that will drive the series, if the narration is to be believed.

Euphoria feels designed to talk about in more ways than one. Much of the conversation will center on the show’s graphic content, so let’s get that out of the way now: the show is incredibly explicit, so much so that it’s accompanied by a trigger warning. Nothing gets held back: sex is depicted with a shocking amount of detail, drug overdoses leave nothing to the imagination, and there’s a disturbing sequence involves self-mutilation.

The content is so explicit that it practically went viral before the show premiered, with much talk about the “30 penises” that get screentime. While that specific number might be an exaggeration yes, there are penises on screen, including multiple erect ones. And the show is clearly designed to shock. Viewers who may be triggered by this content should certainly avoid the series. But, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface here.

For one thing, the show is quite well made. Sam Levison, son of Barry and director of Assassination Nation, created the series, and brings an edge to it that feels totally of the time. Meanwhile, director Augustine Frizzell (Never Going Back) leaves an unmistakable visual mark on the show, with some fantastic editing that keeps things moving and leaves viewers wondering what will come next. And cinematographer Marcell Rév delivers gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot, whether he’s documenting a lonely bike ride home or a wild house party. There’s hardly a dull moment, even if it may be fair to call the show a bit self-indulgent.

Even more than that, the show serves as a launching pad for Zendaya in a way that she’s never been afforded. As Rue, she’s tasked with consistently holding the series together with her voice-over. Granted, she’s occasionally given clunky dialogue – one monologue about nudes has good intentions but feels out of place. But her voice-over has a detached affect to it that feels perfect for the show’s tone. But it goes beyond narration: her screen presence is sort of stunning. She carries herself from scene to scene with such lived-in sadness, and has clearly done the work to make a layered character out of what could have been a cliché. Near the end of the episode, she delivers a monologue about her drug addiction that ties the pilot together and almost single-handedly demands viewers tune in next week. Wherever the show goes from here, it’s worth watching just to see what Zendaya does next.

It’s hard to say whether or not the show is an accurate portrait of being a teenager in modern America. It’s been a while, but this certainly doesn’t resemble my teenage years in any way. And, more often than not, it calls to mind an after-school special – not in terms of execution, but simply because of the sheer number of hot-button topics it chooses to address. But that’s not to say the show isn’t accurate – I’m, sadly, sure that this resembles bits and pieces of real life for teens today. It can just feel a bit overwhelming at times, due to the sheer amount of content audiences are hit with in less than an hour.

But even if the show takes some creative liberties while recreating the high school experience, it creates the mood of being a teenager today in a way that feels completely believable. As the series wisely points out, our country has been at war for these characters’ entire lives. Hate crime rates have skyrocketed, we’re in the midst of an opioid crisis, and scientists predict the world will end by 2050 if we keep damaging our environment. I’m an adult with a stable job and a general understanding of how the world works, and I feel overwhelmed and anxious about the state of our world. I can only imagine what today’s teens feel when their expected angst is compounded with true existential dread.

Euphoria creates this feeling in a way that’s both beautiful and brutal. It’s not an easy watch, and it’s tone certainly won’t work for everyone. But there’s something hypnotic about it, and even as it relies on some teen soap cliches, its tone helps it feel like a breath of fresh air. This is a soap opera for a world that’s on fire, and while it might all go off the rails in the coming weeks, it’s too fascinating to look away.

Euphoria airs Sunday nights on HBO. The premiere is currently streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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