The adults in the room may keep dismissing the idea of television made for teens as so much melodramatic moralizing, but despite unkillable presumptions to the contrary, actual teen television is doing just fine. More than fine, it’s thriving. Hardly a season has gone by in the last 25 years that didn’t feature at least one teen series surprising audiences with its progressive/inventive/utterly audacious storytelling. In the Post-Peak TV era, the number of teen shows pushing every envelope they can find has absolutely exploded. You can’t throw a witty gif these days without hitting an On My Block or a Good Trouble or a Wayne. (What the f*ck’s a Wayne?) Is it exhausting, watching so many people who should know better react to each formidable new entry to the teen television canon with bemusement again and again and again? Obviously! But to keep my hackles raised for every new take? In THIS economy?? This past New Year’s, I made the professional resolution to stop writing about teen television from a place of defensiveness.
For the most part, keeping my resolution has been easy. Wayne helped, as did The Society, as did a late-to-the-party binge of the wild and warm TVD spinoff, Legacies. Even the shockingly facile Siempre Bruja helped, serving as it did as a tangible reminder of how hollow (if beautifully shot) teen television, in less broadly responsible hands, could be.
But then came Euphoria.
Based on an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria is HBO’s first foray into the teen television space. Adapted by Millennial showrunner Sam Levinson and co-starring Zendaya Coleman in her first major post-Disney TV role, Euphoria is, according to HBO’s official description, about “a group of high school students as they navigate love and friendships in a world of drugs, sex, trauma, and social media.” In a social media message posted as gentle trigger warning to her fans the day the show premiered, Coleman described it as “a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety and the difficulties of navigating life today.” According to Variety, on the red carpet before the show’s premiere earlier this month Coleman’s co-stars called it “raw” and “honest” and “raw” (yes, again), unwilling to “pull punches,” with “a level of ‘realness’ other teen series lack.” According to adult co-star Eric Dane, the show “provides no-nonsense optics on what it means to be a teenager today.” According to former HBO programming president Casey Bloys, in specific reference to the harrowing portrayal of Rue’s anxiety-induced drug addiction, which is modeled after Levinson’s own teen experience, “it may seem boundary-pushing, and the idea of putting them on TV may be, but somebody lived them.” On a cattier note: “We’re not trying to put out a Gossip Girl.”
All this to say, if the team behind Euphoria could float one meme to the top of the #FeelEuphoria timeline, good money says that wow i can’t believe HBO invented teen television would be it.
Well, so much for my resolution! Hackles, engage.
Because here’s the thing: If anyone at HBO had made even half a stab at fluency in the modern teen television canon, they would know that the boundaries they’re pushing, cinematically devastating as they are, aren’t all that new. Coleman’s haunted, tenderly fucked-up portrayal of teen addict Rue is arresting, but before she chose an anxious, drug-addicted loner as the best character with which to break away from her more innocent Disney past, I Didn’t Do It’s Olivia Holt had already done the same on Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger back in 2018, while Teen Beach Movie’s Maia Mitchell was finding parallel paths through traumatized delinquency on The Fosters (currently, Good Trouble) as far back as 2013. As for the unhinged brutality Nate (Jacob Elordi) approaches the world with, and the criticism it makes of unchecked toxic masculinity? Wayne explored that dynamic not just with its title character, but across a constellation of dudes, each shaped by toxic masculinity in nuanced, personal and seriously messed up ways. The Society, meanwhile, put a murder weapon in the hands of a delusional incel. And that’s just me skimming the surface of the past two years.
And what about all those drugs, all that drinking, all that sex? Well, considering how inaccurate to Gen Z trends as the sexed-up saturnalia side of Euphoria is, HBO might as well have been trying to put out the next Gossip Girl. The premiere’s “Bitch, this isn’t the 80s! You need to catch a dick!” is a very funny line, made funnier still by Jules’ (Hunter Schafer) deadly serious delivery, but if it’s the honest, unfiltered reflection of anything, it’s not Gen Z’s universal feelings about sex (which are, studies show, increasingly ambivalent), but rather Jules’ highly specific ones. See also: The wash of alcohol and drugs across the series, which might accurately reflect the specificity of Rue’s individual experience and/or the lived experience 34-year-old showrunner Levinson is writing from, but which does not reflect the increasingly sober Gen Z cohort as a whole. (“There is such a tendency to catastrophize teenage behavior that many parents and television writers have missed this revolution in the nature of adolescence,” notes the New York Times in their own data-driven rebuttal to the series.)
Where Euphoria does get the mindfuck of being a teen today right is, evidently, in its frankness about Gen Z’s rising rates of anxiety and suicide, and in the omnipresence of smartphones, smartphone cameras and the social media platforms that conspire with native teen drama to bring the two together. But even then, HBO could have done legwork enough to know that Euphoria isn’t ahead of the teen television curve.
What is? Julie Andem’s Norwegian public television hit, SKAM, and the ever-expanding universe of international remakes it has inspired.
We’ve covered SKAM at Paste before—first, when the original snuck to the top of Tumblr’s year-end “Best Live Action TV” Fandometrics list in 2017 and made us question everything we knew about the state of teen television, then again last summer when the daily clips and Insta posts making up the innovative first season of SKAM Austin (the only remake to have Andem back at the helm as showrunner) hit the still-nascent Facebook Watch. Since then, the number of official international remakes has risen to eight, with 10 more potential countries just waiting for the green light. If you want to know which of the current seasons are best, or if you want to find links to fan-subtitled vid links, just ask Tumblr; Fandom’s weekly “Best Live Action TV” list consistently includes at least a couple SKAMs. It is a legit phenomenon.
In practice, the digitally-hosted dribs and drabs that get woven together at the end of each week to make up a single SKAM episode look nothing like the slick premium cable spectacle that is Euphoria, but at their core, the two series are about the same thing: A group of high school students as they navigate love and friendship in a world of drugs, sex, trauma, and social media. Only where Euphoria is a riot of glitter tears and druggy, unreliable narration, SKAM’s daily content drops are rendered with meticulously minimalist realism. There are no filters, unless the characters themselves are applying them to their own selfies. There is rarely a soundtrack, unless the characters turn something on. Awkward silences between friends last as long as they last; one-sided silences between viewer and character stretch out as whole minutes tick by silently, a text exchange or Instagram scroll playing out in real-time on the screen. In SKAM Austin’s first season, lucky fans saw suspicious likes and comments between two off-screen characters appear and disappear in real time at the same moment the season’s central character, Megan (Julie Rocha), did.
This past season, “Grace’s Season” (SKAM’s focus canonically shifts to center a different character in the cohort each season), took that minimalist realism into pitch darkness—literally, as a character started blacking out after her first shot at a party with college kids she didn’t know. Long stretches of silent dark were punctuated here and there by frantic, indecipherable party scenes. In the immediate, scary aftermath (positioned as the opening scene of the next week’s episode) the character gets from point A to point B in total silence.
The psychological darkness that follows this event—the most naked part which, it turns out, was documented on one of the college dudes’ phones—takes up most of the character’s mental real estate for the remainder of the season. But although she is isolated in her own anxiety and self-recrimination, the storytelling framework Andem developed for the original SKAM ensures that when her friends do come to her aid, it is as strong individual characters with interests, motivations and personal trials all their own (including a Black Muslim girl whose locker is spray-painted with the word TERRORIST in the middle of her campaign for Prom Queen) rather than as a cipher of high school types motivated solely by the boys who are or are not interested in letting them “catch their dick.” (Hackle alert: Aside from Rue and her younger sister, every teen girl in the first four episodes of Euphoria sets this as her top priority.)
Not for nothing is robust, generationally-specific characterization one of the key benefits to spending eight months criss-crossing a whole country conducting hundreds of interviews with teenage girls about the kinds of characters and stories they wished they could see reflected on television, which is what Andem and her social media director, Mari Mangus, did before developing the original SKAM. While the international explosion of the SCU proves that most of these themes and characters are universally relatable, Andem actively seeks feedback from both the local teens scouted for the SKAM Austin cast and the teen fans following along at home. Contrast this to Levinson’s one-man-band approach to Euphoria—heavy stress on the one; heavier stress still, I can’t help but suspect, on the man—and a lot of the HBO series’ unearned certainty about its own transgressive novelty, not to mention its inconsistent grasp of which generation’s experience it wants “authentic” to reflect, start to make sense. (“When adults write teen shows, it can often come across as inauthentic. How did you capture this generation?” Entertainment Weekly asked in a recent interview. “No, I just wrote myself,” Levinson responded. “I just wrote myself as a teenager. I think those feelings and memories they’re still extremely accessible to me. So it’s not a hard reach. I just write myself and what I was feeling and what I was going through when I was younger and I was dealing with addiction.”)
For fans of Euphoria frustrated (or even angry) at my eagerness to raise hackles against a visually entrancing poem of a story that is absolutely resonating with a lot of people—fair! Tastes vary, and as a grizzled Millennial coeval of Levinson myself, I can’t possibly be certain that behind the low-key image the Gen Z teens of my acquaintance present IRL, they aren’t saturnalianing it up behind locked bedroom doors. I also can’t be certain that Levinson didn’t consult Actual Teens at any point in the writing process (although that quote above leaves little room for that being the case).
What I can be certain of is what I’ve always been certain of: Whether it’s on HBO or not, teen television is, and has long been, worth taking seriously. All I ever want is more people to understand that, so that they too can thrill at the kinds of stories teen television tells when nothing else will. Keep watching Euphoria if it’s something you can handle—Coleman and Schafer are delicate angels who’ll probably deserve awards by the time all’s said and done. But if a raw, unfiltered look at Gen Z (as vetted by real teens!) is something you were hoping to get out of the experience, don’t sleep on SKAM Austin. Facebook may be a democracy-destroying bummer, but at least their original scripted content is both free and excellent.
Euphoria airs on HBO on Sundays at 10 p.m. The first two seasons of SKAM Austin are available streaming for free on Facebook Watch right now.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.