Film & TV

Trolling America in HBO’s Euphoria

Zendaya in Euphoria (HBO)
The one-hour pilot contains material beyond what is ordinarily found in even an R-rated movie.

Of HBO’s new series Euphoria, its creator and writer Sam Levinson says, “There are going to be parents who are going to be totally f***ing freaked out.” There is no “but” coming. The freak-out is the point, at least if the premiere episode is to be believed. HBO needs a zeitgeist-capturing successor to Sex and the City and Girls, so Euphoria seems to have been formulated on a mission to make the latter seem quaint and the former positively Victorian. The one-hour pilot contains material beyond what is ordinarily found in even an R-rated movie, including a teen nearly perishing in a drug overdose, a shot of an erect penis and a spectacularly awful scene of a transgender girl getting sodomized by a middle-aged man. There’s also a teen slashing herself, nudity of the barely legal variety, two teens having sex in a swimming pool at a party in full view of others filming the act on their phones, a teen fooling her mom about a drug test after affixing a bottle of someone else’s urine to her thigh, a scene in which a seemingly gentle boy chokes his sweetheart during sex because that’s how he’s seen things go in porn videos, plus lots of scenes of teens being nasty, vindictive, and duplicitous. Judd Apatow’s 21-year-old daughter Maude is in there somewhere, but at least she isn’t the one getting sodomized. Whatever can Levinson be saving for episode two, airing Sunday? A montage of 17 penises, according to reports. Can’t hardly wait. Levinson has said he wanted the scene to feature “like, 80 more.” Let’s hear it for restraint! 

Sex and the City and Girls were original, witty, and astute television shows, but Euphoria seems to mistake being shocking for being interesting. After an hour of relentlessly grueling material I was reminded not of any previous HBO show but of Kids, the rebarbative, now-forgotten 1995 movie about bored/alienated/drugged youth its producer/publicist Harvey Weinstein turned into a cultural event for about ten minutes, until people actually saw the thing. (It grossed $7 million, so it sold roughly one ticket for every think piece written about it.) Like Euphoria, Kids implicitly asked the public, “Please notice how outrageous we are. Please?” Levinson is really pushing for “Conservatives in a Tizzy over Euphoria” headlines. I don’t doubt that he’ll get them. Is he trying to do anything more?

I’m not sure. Those who caught his last effort, Assassination Nation, a thematically similar feature released last year that flopped after generating hype at the Sundance Film Festival, will have noticed that Levinson, just 34, is already repeating his own tropes: teen girls saying, “Suck my d***,” groups of muscular teen bros sitting around without shirts for no reason, transgender teens getting sodomized, sexual episodes between teens and married middle-aged men calling themselves “Daddy.”

Levinson (the son of the Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson) wrote all eight episodes of Euphoria, which is based on an Israeli TV series of the same name. The prospect of sitting through seven more hours of Levinson trolling America does not make me especially euphoric, but if there is cause for hope in the series it lies largely with its young leading lady Zendaya, who showed real star power in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Because of her, Euphoria has what Assassination Nation lacked, which is a strong central presence to give us a rooting interest. Zendaya’s depressed, anxious, alienated character Rue behaves abominably — the minute she gets out of drug rehab, she tells us in an interior monologue she has no intention of staying clean — yet the 22-year-old actress playing her is so appealing that we can’t help hoping she manages to stabilize herself. However the series goes, Zendaya is going to make a name for herself, and so, I think, is the director of the pilot, Augustine Frizell, an actress turned director (her one feature credit, Never Goin’ Back, was released in 2018) who captures Zendaya’s troubles with a hypnotic array of fluid, graceful camera moves recalling the work of Martin Scorsese.

Is Euphoria a nightmare dispatch from the front lines of the latest teen revolution? That’s its pose, as was the case for Kids, but I’m skeptical: Teen misbehavior of various kinds seems to be trending steadily downward, and anyway fretting about what our teens are getting up to probably goes back at least as far as Little House on the Prairie. Euphoria feels more like the work of a slightly desperate middle-aged writer doing his best to cram as many outlandishly lurid events into each episode as he possibly can with an eye toward totally f***ing freaking out parents, who after all are the ones who pay for the HBO subscriptions. Maybe they’ll be so wound up they won’t be able to tear their eyes away. I’m not necessarily hearing a teen cry for help, but I can definitely hear a writer’s cry to be noticed in a universe of 500 scripted shows. HBO folk told the Hollywood Reporter they hope to make Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why “look like an after-school special,” and “we’re not trying to do Gossip Girl.” The standard cited is not the lived experience of any actual teens but the fictional teens of other TV worlds. Teens may watch the show, but I doubt they’ll find that the show captures their lives any more than Game of Thrones does.

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