Baby owls. Baby owls are the only thing on this planet that might be able to out-adorable Zendaya.
Admittedly, “adorable” is not the operative word for anything about HBO’s Euphoria. It’s bleak and deliberately provocative, saturated with drugs and sex and maladaptive decadence and rendered in beautifully lurid colors. Our tour guide through this dystopian high school landscape is Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old addict with… a nihilist streak? Her diffident attitude toward, like, being alive is understandable in context: she literally doesn’t know anyone who isn’t a drug-snorting, porn-swilling, lying, violent, self-harming glassy-eyed zombie. That’d get to anyone after a while, even if they didn’t have an anxiety disorder.
Euphoria is a confusing show in some ways. It seems like a total provocation, an endless barrage of existential misery and trauma softcore and shock for shock’s sake. It’s massively voyeuristic, a seeming peek into the veiled world of teen misdeed that’s not really intended for a teen audience; this show is for adults, and it’s designed to freak them the hell out, presenting a relentless universe of violation and self-destruction. It’s got a stochastic, vignette-oriented feel with relatively little in the way of plot deployment, which neatly—and I will add artfully— underscores the feeling of suffocating dread it offers with its misty, neon-light-in-fog tones and mumbling, voyeuristically screen-gazing characters.
But there is something beautiful about it. Director Sam Levinson’s vision is well-crafted, but even if it weren’t, it would take a lot of proactively crappy craftsmanship to make Zendaya a boring watch. She’s luminous, even when she’s passed out on Fentanyl. Her newly-moved-in best friend Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl with a legit flair for drama in her own right, also shines, and serves as a merciful breath of fresh air, as she seems a little less unconscious than most of the characters.
Zendaya’s Rue narrates in voiceover (which is often painfully self-centered and hyperbolic, as befits a troubled adolescent), noting that no one should assume she’s a reliable narrator, and that’s certainly part of the point here. Under the layer of audience voyeurism is another gaze-layer, and it’s that of a teenager who is largely off her tits on whatever she can snort. Maybe everyone’s not as sexually crazy and epically stoned and distressingly beautiful as they seem to her. Maybe this is the invention of the naturally melodramatic teen psyche, cranked up on pills.
It’s not the first or the only TV show to have a very dark take on what teenagers are really up to (Twin Peaks comes to mind for one thing), and the layer of gauzy, bleary unreality it conveys is at once compelling and a little gross. It’s admirably unflinching in its exploration of our darker impulses, but at the same time, it’s rather obnoxious in its suggestion that these are typical or normal teenagers. I’m sorry, they’re not. At least not any more so than teenagers who are not snorting, mainlining or publically fucking everything that isn’t nailed down. Maybe it’s all a conceit, the fantasia of someone chemically blinkered, but there are enough scenes that Ru doesn’t have direct access to or a role in that it’s not 100% certain that’s what we’re seeing. It’s got a dreary, miserable beauty to it to be sure. It’s also fetishistic and petulant and plain weird in what it asks you to take for granted.
I get why it’s controversial but I was neither enamored nor outraged by Euphoria. It’s a gripping performance by a charismatic young actress with a very good supporting cast and a tightly woven artistic vision. It’s also, honestly, a bit of a drag. Incredibly well-executed, yes. Problematic too. On balance, highly worth a watch. If you’re depressed or triggered by people on self-destructive benders, maybe it’s a good time to check out Gentleman Jack instead? But if your head can take this much of a beating, Euphoria has lots of rewarding moments.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.