Euphoria review: HBO’s latest show is a generation-defining masterpiece; tragic and traumatic in equal measure, starring an excellent Zendaya in the lead. Rating: 4.5/5.
Cast – Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Maude Apatow, Algee Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi
Rating – 4.5/5
In 2011, MTV had the excellent idea of adapting the genre-defining UK teen show, Skins, for the American audience. Like the original show, which can take credit for launching the careers of Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Joe Dempsie, Kaya Scodelario, Jack O’Connell and others, the idea was to cast unknowns in lead roles and offer an unflinching portrait of the teenage experience for the generation that was living it.
While the UK version received its share of backlash in its day, MTV could never have anticipated the blitzkrieg that would accompany the release of the US Skins.
Watch the Euphoria trailer here
Shortly after the premiere episode, which was modelled closely on the first episode of the original, complaints began to flow in. The show was promoting drug use, some viewers said. The raw depiction of sex and violence wasn’t suitable for a teen audience, critics complained. Statements were issued by the network, advertisers got cold feet and began pulling out, and then, matters escalated rather drastically. The Parents Television Council filed a complaint with the US Department of Justice, asking it to bring child pornography charges on MTV.
The American Skins was swiftly cancelled, its entire run lasting just 10 episodes. The British version had fought its way to seven seasons. The official reason given was that it didn’t quite connect with the American audience – which, if you think about it, is kind of true.
Now, almost a decade later, no doubt encouraged by the success of its previous shows (and societal and cultural evolution), HBO has released Euphoria, itself a remake of an equally controversial Israeli show, and a sort of spiritual successor to Skins. Like Skins, Euphoria also stars a cast of wonderful young performers in a quasi-fantastical landscape riddled with glorious debauchery. The Parents Television Council, like the Karni Sena sensing another moment in the spotlight, has once again sprung into action, having taken issue with an episode in which ‘close to 30 penises are flashed onscreen’.
In all honestly, had I not seen Chernobyl a few weeks ago, I would have been slightly taken aback as well. There is, after all, the added discomfort of the said 30 penises belonging to teenagers, and not middle-aged Soviet miners. But Euphoria’s connections to Chernobyl end with its gratuitous display of nudity; the rest of it, including an impromptu musical number, brings back strong memories of Skins.
They’re even structured similarly, wherein every episode is told from the perspective of a different character navigating the messy minefield of high school. Crucially, though, every episode, regardless of who is in focus for that hour, is narrated by Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a 17-year-old drug addict fresh out of a stint in rehab.
I wouldn’t call her an unreliable narrator, although her reputation certainly precedes her. To cope with the death of her dad, Rue began taking pills, which opened the door to more dangerous substances, eventually leading to an OD. When the school year begins, everyone looks at her with mild surprise, convinced that they’d heard she’d died during the summer. Rue doesn’t really have any friends, which is perhaps why she knows so much about her fellow high schoolers, and feels compelled to tell their stories to anyone who is willing to listen. Which in this case happens to be you and I.
Euphoria is an extension of the distinct style that creator Sam Levinson first unleashed in his 2018 film, Assassination Nation, a parable about modern America in which a group of wronged teenage girls took matters into their own hands and annihilated all opposition in the most satisfyingly over-the-top manner. I urge you to check it out; it really is quite a special experience. Levinson, son of filmmaker Barry, is credited with having written every episode of Euphoria, in addition to directing five of its eight episodes. And while his remarkable visual aesthetic – part David Fincher, part Nicolas Winding Refn – is a sight to behold, the stinging social satire of Assassination Nation has been sidelined in favour of a more ‘realistic’ approach, if you can even call it that.
Often, the visuals are so jaw-droppingly stunning, the sounds too hypnotic and the camera so lucid, that you are conned into ignoring several lines of clunky dialogue, which even this fine, young cast, led by the amazing Zendaya, can’t quite salvage.
Levinson firmly places one foot, like Danny Boyle did in Trainspotting, in the realm of fantasy. This helps in toning down some of the shock value of what is being shown on screen, which includes but isn’t limited to statutory rape, toxic masculinity, physical and emotional abuse, drug-fuelled benders, teen pregnancy, a burgeoning porn career, and rampant, almost militant carelessness.
Which begs the question: Why? Why are these kids – and they really are just kids – behaving like this? A generation, it seems, has passed since I watched Skins. And while the high school experience remains as tricky as it has always been, the kids these days have grown up in a very different world; a world that is as divided in real life as it is connected online. This drastic contradiction certainly wasn’t something we’d experienced a decade ago.
The only world they know is one filled with paranoia and panic, where the greatest weapons aren’t just nuclear bombs, but also mobile phones. This is a world in which revenge porn can be just as deadly as being drafted into the military, where mental health is a bigger parasite than AIDS. Experiences are traded like currency, while little attention is paid to ones future and career. In high school, everything seems permanent, but nothing ever is.
Slowly, it dawned upon me that nearly every character in Euphoria was quite probably born after the year 2000. They’d inherited a rotting world from their parents, and even though their outrage might seem difficult to fathom to some, it’s only because, shamefully, we haven’t quite understood them. And that, really, is what the show is all about – to offer a glimpse into the lives of people without any judgement or ridicule.
Everyone, Euphoria says emphatically, regardless of the mistakes they’ve made or the hearts they’ve broken or the backs they’ve stabbed, deserves a shot at love. Another generation, like every generation, has been wronged. By honouring one, Euphoria honours them all.