What Euphoria‘s Grimdark Aesthetic Says About the Evolution of Teen Dramas

TV Features Euphoria
What Euphoria‘s Grimdark Aesthetic Says About the Evolution of Teen Dramas

I hope Euphoria never ends. Between teenage girls becoming internet famous by writing viral Larry Stylinson fanfiction on Tumblr or swallowing goldfish and slicing their arms in the middle of house parties, the extent to which the controversial HBO series manages to accurately capture and exaggerate the strange happenings and milestones scribbled down in one’s own teenage diary is dumbfounding. 

Led by a cast more attractive, deviant and drug-fueled than the peers you likely grew up with, the show indulges in the wicked deviancies of young adulthood that Freeform, MTV, Teen Nick or any other teen-marketed network have been unable to depict in an explicit and, uh, FCC-compliant manner: that is, crippling drug addictions, overdoses, child pornography, self-injury, camming, child institutionalization, severe mental illness and warped romantic power dynamics.

Euphoria is the latest installment in the sudden boom of darker content that has overtaken the teen genre: shows tackling grislier, macabre or convoluted themes and stylized with saturated colors or dark, high-contrast lighting to exaggerate mystery or melodrama. It’s a strange grimdark movement spearheaded by the likes of The CW’s pulpy soap Riverdale, Netflix’s damned shock-horror 13 Reasons Why and even Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars

You’d have to be living under a rock to miss this evolution occurring in the Teen Drama—the sudden shift from campy, wonky shows centered around Laney Boggs-types embarrassing themselves in front of cute boys to Lynchian, hellish dramas about racy and sedated teenagers poisoning their parents, manipulating their peers and succumbing to biker gangs.  

The genre’s longstanding cookie-cutter codes and conventions—relying on stereotypes, familiar, teen-specific locales and boy-meets-Mary-Sue narrative structures—have gone by the wayside to make room for candid and unembellished storytelling, marking the first time in a long time that teen-marketed content has taken on a new identity. But how the hell did teen content get so dark? 

Teen-focused films and TV shows often move in phases. The ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s saw a big boom in the teen genre, lasting somewhere between Sixteen Candles and Mean Girls. As explained in Charlie Lyne’s visual essay Beyond Clueless, most teen dramas made during that period were cut from the same fabric: straight white male or female protagonists tortured by something unique to adolescence (sexuality, fitting in, overbearing parents—the “I’m not giving up my dream, I’m giving up yours” mentality), banked on montages of incredible house parties, makeout sessions, school dances and proms, written with some evident moral message behind them. 

As the genre became more of a cash-grab curio in the ‘00s, studios focused on pumping out campier romantic comedies and dramas (Bubble Boy, Slap Her…She’s French!) before shifting towards pimping out the teenage condition and mass-producing rich-kid dramas (Gossip Girl, The O.C., 90210). The most recent of short-lived phases was the wave of dystopian content that hit the genre after the success of The Hunger Games in the early ‘10s; you can likely recall the three-year period during which you were unable to sit through movie previews without watching teen heartthrobs jump over, like, rocks and asteroids in futuristic locales. 

As the genre exhausted dystopia, it moved on to grimdark storytelling—and suddenly a new craze was born. 

That’s not to say that darker teen content hasn’t been around for decades already. The ‘90s and ‘00s brought Thirteen, Fear, The Craft, Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse trilogy and the entirety of Harmony Korine’s early filmography, all of which tackled extreme concepts for the teen demographic at that time. Though most of it was overwhelmingly campy, zeitgeisty teen serials also had their fair share of testy episodes: even Degrassi: The Next Generation, One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven all had their own landmark “school shooting” episodes.

But the sudden overnight multiplication of teen-marketed grimdark hullabaloo is a new novelty, and the timing of the boom coinciding with the rise of social media hints that it may be the industry’s reaction to the advent of a newfound teenage autonomy. Raised on a diet of Twitter overshares, Reddit forums and episodes of NowThis, Generation Z is more educated and socially aware of their environment and different ways of living than past generations. They have been exposed to everything: witnessing the Parkland tragedy unfold in real time on Twitter; watching viral video after viral video of policeman assaulting black men; and beholding the domino-like effect of celebrities being outed for their sexual misconduct during the #MeToo era. 

Getting a glimpse into a teenager’s life and whatever interpersonal turmoil they’re going through—no matter how glamorized or filtered it may appear—is no longer as much of a novel thing as it once was. If teenagers can watch their classmates flaunt high-rolling, reckless or boring lives on platforms more accessible than premium cable networks, why would they ever turn to Famous In Love over their own social media feeds? 

When using their purchasing power to choose scripted content over reality TV or Twitter timeline refreshes, it makes sense that teenagers would veer towards watching something that challenges their intelligence and reflects the issues that are going on in their self-contained universes: something raw, gutting, unprecedented and far from the Freddie Prinze Jr. slapstick comedy that once made the genre whole—something closer to Skins than Scream. The teenage condition is fragile, and Generation Z want to see it portrayed with care on television; what Instagram can’t display (blatant drug use, severe body harm, topless women), they look to shows like Euphoria to broadcast. 

That’s not to say that the new grimdark dramas are perfect embodiments of the teen condition. Euphoria, despite being billed as “one of the most raw, honest looks at what it looks like now to be a young person” (as compared to, say, Riverdale, whose latter seasons were about drug rings, suicide cults and Lovers Lane-stalking masked gunmen), still requires you to suspend your disbelief. Football players aren’t that ripped and psychopathic, teenage girls are more attuned to wearing Nike gym shorts than two-piece UNIF sets, and the likelihood of a teenage camgirl’s first client being a masochistic “cash pig” is slim to none. 

But there are a number of things the series gets right, almost alarmingly so: Rue’s crippling drug addiction and how it affects her younger sister, the highs of clandestine female friendships and the psychopathy of teenage boys raised on porn. The show depicts a darker side of young adulthood that is often not shown on television in a manner that matches the grimness of each issue being discussed; sure, Degrassi has tackled drug addiction, eating disorders and sexual assault, but the writers did so in the campiest way possible.

Reality can be grim, and teenagers are more attuned to it than adults think. Afflicted by fractured political, criminal justice and mental health systems, increasing pressures to outperform their peers, desensitization to tragedy and trauma and fears of the future, teenagers want to see the real world reflected on screen, even if it is embellished by weird cinematography or hot jocks. Sometimes you need a little darkness to illuminate the answers you’re looking for.

Savannah Sicurella is an intern at Paste whose favorite teen movie is Can’t Hardly Wait. You can follow her on Twitter @holyschmidtt.

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