An internet sensation. A showcase of some of the best young up and coming actors. A daring look at the inner lives of teenagers. A sensory overload. A pretentious pile of nothing. A cultural phenomenon. A cultural mistake. HBO’s Euphoria could be called all of these things. But could it be called…good?
Euphoria is sold on its style. In the end, that’s the show’s artistic goal and its greatest claim to quality. Any argument against its tendency for excess is fundamentally flawed. Euphoria is excess. You cannot change that without asking for a different show entirely. Swinging cameras, spotlights, fourth wall breaks, a collage of characters and emotions colliding together as Labrinth’s score brings it all together (admittedly, the score and music direction are Euphoria’s best aspects by far).
In Season 2, Euphoria wants to develop its style. The neon-colorful lights and flipping camera of Season 1 have been replaced by golden spotlights, a grainy filter, and viewing its characters as portraiture. But despite its stylistic progress, the show is leaving its plot and characters behind.
The characters of Euphoria are Euphoria. The names Rue, Jules, Kat, Cassie, Nate, and Maddie are cemented in the heads of the young people who obsessively watch the show. Their deeply personal struggles and defined character archetypes are what keep people watching, as viewers sit on the edge of their seats and wait for any of them to experience just one thing that goes right in their lives.
In writing there is a lesson you learn early on: you have to be a little cruel to your characters. Punish your darlings. Your characters need conflict and loss to propel the narrative. Series writer and creator Sam Levinson has seemingly taken this to the extreme. His characters know only misery. The show’s very title—Euphoria—is an argument against embracing joy, that even when things are good it will be fleeting.
Euphoria is just the latest addition to television’s pantheon of shows about high schoolers. But where Euphoria falls in this genre is confusing. The outrageous plotlines and high octane drama aligns it with the likes of Degrassi or even Secret Life of an American Teenager. But it also has the insanity and plentiful subject matters of Rivderdale and Glee, as well as the attempts at honesty and empathy of Sex Education.
Euphoria wants to be everything all the time. That’s what makes it interesting, but it’s also what makes it weak. It’s not the first high school show to embrace insanity, but it seems to be the first that thinks itself above the format it’s clearly based on. Levinson and company seem to think they are exposing a raw truth for the first time, that Euphoria is paving new ground in its daring. But just because it can be controversial, it doesn’t mean that the subjects it attempts to shed light on are treated well. Levinson seems to think that just containing shocking acts gives the show a backbone.
Euphoria’s desire for excess and everything may be what makes it what it is, but if you pay attention you will start to notice the cracks. Euphoria is every show, not just every high school show, but every style of show. It’s wacky and insane, it’s serious and emotional, it’s making a statement about drug addiction and abuse, it’s a poppy dream where no one goes to school and everyone wears their most beautiful outfits to chemistry class.
If Euphoria is everything, then it will always be fighting against itself. Each viewer can latch onto the version of the show they like and rail against it when it becomes a different show. If the journey of Rue’s addiction draws you in, you might turn away when the show becomes preoccupied with Cal’s downward spiral and attempt to reckon with his past (which is fair, does anyone really care about Cal’s storyline?) If you like the hyper-elevated interpersonal dramas of the central girls, when the show steers into much darker subjects you might wish it was a different show, or think it’s tonally inconsistent. And you’d be right, Euphoria has never been consistent. The show mixes its visual metaphors in the name of style, and it swings between different tones from scene to scene.
But that’s what makes Euphoria so frustrating—sometimes it really is good. Rue’s storyline is the one Levinson himself connects with the most, and you can tell he wants to honestly portray the struggles of teenage addiction. He does so with admirable effort and a very Emmy worthy performance from Zendaya. Hunter Schafer absolutely shines and brings so much to the character of Jules, which makes it so frustrating when she is given nothing to do but watch Rue’s downfall. Season 2 is especially in love with Cassie as a character, but the amount of attention given to her storyline feels skewed when compared to that of Kat, who was one of the most compelling characters of Season 1. The music is excellent, the show has a distinct visual agenda, and it has the budget to execute. But Levinson just can’t seem to decide what show he’s making.
As a Gen Z watcher, I’m often confused when older people talk about Euphoria being unrealistic, or gasping in horror at the idea that actual teenagers may go through similar events of the show. While I did not attend a “Euphoria High,” the show absolutely is able to connect to the overwhelming feelings of being a teenager in a way many other shows haven’t. There have been moments when I’ve related to most of the main cast of girls and their emotional turmoil. And that’s what makes it especially sad when the show complements this honesty with unbearing misery and torment on these girls. Yeah, high school kinda sucks, but is wanting to see the characters embrace joy without meditating on its fleeting nature really too much to ask?
So, is Euphoria any good? I ask myself that after I devour every episode. It feels like a copout to say “it depends on what you like” because yeah, that’s every show. But I really believe Euphoria is only good if you are able to like it at its high and forgive it at its lows. It undoubtedly has problems: the torture of its characters, its pursuit of art that often rolls into pretentiousness, its uneven execution. All are certainly justifiable reasons for anyone to want to turn it off.
And yet, week after week, I somehow decide to forgive this show. It’s not for Sam Levinson or because I love the show as it is. It’s because I am always searching for that moment when Euphoria reaches the highs it’s capable of inhabiting. Even if it doesn’t last forever, I’m always chasing after that one moment of peace and fulfillment, that perfect moment of euphoria. And maybe that makes me a fool, or just someone tricked by colorful lights and melodrama. But it’s a show I love to talk and think about. Maybe I can find my own joy in the absence Euphoria leaves behind.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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