‘Euphoria’ explores the new freedom of streamed series with drugs, sex, and more drugs
Directed by Sam Levinson
Screenplay by Ron Leshem
Starring Zendaya, Sydney Sweeney, Maude Apatow, and Hunter Schafer
Streaming on HBO Max
Streaming has changed our expectations for TV series. Gone are the days when every house on your street was watching I Love Lucy at 8/7 central; the golden age of the generally agreeable sitcom, the neutral cop show, and the tired soap opera has given way to the chaos of modern entertainment. A show made specifically to be streamed does not need broad appeal, and it doesn’t have to conform to FCC standards. It doesn’t have to be a way to relax after work, a family favorite, or a Saturday cartoon. Euphoria fully explores this new freedom: it is an uncomfortable show about drugs, sex, and the turbulent life of the modern teenager.
In the opening monologue, the viewer is thrust into the dizzying, angsty world of Rue (Zendaya). Born in the shadow of 9/11, surrounded by the ever-present eyes and cameras of her peers, and plagued by an unspecified cocktail of mental illnesses, teenage Rue falls into drug addiction. Before long, we meet the complex cast of Rue’s life from her impressionable sister to her almost brotherly drug dealer. Euphoria has all the parts of a “normal” show about high schoolers, but a deeper inspection of every relationship reveals more below the surface.
You’ll see nudity, drug use, violence, and a range of other obscenities, but none of it is gratuitous. Euphoria’s uncensored approach to its complex web of relationships powerfully showcases the messy reality of high school in the modern age.
The overwhelming focus of the show is Rue’s relationship with substance abuse. Although the line “drugs are cool” appears a worrying amount of times throughout the series, the conclusion of the show is much more nuanced. No episode finishes without a heart wrenching revelation about how drugs have corrupted a relationship. Through this, Euphoria masterfully humanizes addiction without romanticizing it.
Although the show overwhelmingly concerns the troubles of high schoolers who live largely without supervision, the kids’ relationships with their parents soften their harsh characterizations. It’s hard to establish any character as a true villain or hero, because no character acts in a vacuum.
Lastly, the show offers empowerment in different packages for each character. Promiscuity brings Kat (Barbie Ferreira) freedom from her own self-hatred but excludes her from stable confidence. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) takes an opposite journey, finding freedom by creating a sense of self outside of men’s impressions of her. Rue uses her relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer), at times, as a healthier alternative to drugs, but with the same level of dependency.
Further, Jules’ empowerment purely embodies the freedom of streamed shows. Within the first episode, we see her bloodied from a fall on her bike, injecting her hormones with a needle, and slashing open her arm to scare off Nate at his party. Beyond that, she exists in a whirlwind of countercultural paradoxes: she presents herself in an overwhelmingly feminine manner yet exists in online spaces for gay men. She pushes those around her to find empowerment in femininity, yet doesn’t see femininity as the endpoint for her identity. In an intriguing speech, she even declares that her true goal is to “conquer femininity” and move into a realm of pure queerness. In a moment that seems to describe her better than she can describe herself, a friend proclaims “queerness is infinite!” Her character, in both expression and sex, operates for the destruction of every binary, every regimented system of identity, yet she respects how those binary identities give structure to others. None of these attributes would fall within the narrow requirements for prime time characters.
In the end, I think what truly differentiates Euphoria from similar media is that for every way in which it shocks the audience, there is a purpose. There is no violence for the sake of violence or sex for the sake of sex. And there are plenty of moments of sex and violence. Queer characters having relationships furthers the greater plot instead of existing purely for the shock or for queerbating. In every element — the vibrant palate, the eccentric music, the exaggeration of personalities of most of the characters — Euphoria’s nauseating excess is a clear reflection of the excessive, real age that we live in.