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HBO's Euphoria is a gorgeous, empty spectacle

  • "Outside of a few poignant character moments, Euphoria tries so hard to be provocative that it doesn’t stir up much at all," says Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya. "It’s a gorgeous, empty thing that mistakes external beauty for inner depth. Throughout the first stretch of the series, the question of who exactly this series is for needles the mind. It’s about Gen Z but certainly isn’t aimed at them. And that’s not necessarily a recipe for undoing—plenty of teen shows are made for adults or at least for teens and adults in tandem. But there’s an unnerving sense throughout Euphoria that this is a kaleidoscope into modern teen life framed by and packaged for older viewers who become voyeurs of these teens. Look how much they swear, they have sex, they get high, the show practically screams over and over and over. It doesn’t feel edgy so much as a razor’s edge indiscriminately slicing through the air, targetless and wild. Voyeurism is baked into Euphoria. The director’s eye is sharp but almost too present. Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) shoots these teens with immersive stylization and has the most fun with it whenever someone’s on drugs. It’s often nice to look at, but a TV show shouldn’t feel like a music video this much."


    • Intended at the prestige TV version of a teen series, Euphoria ends up being an uncensored Gossip Girl: "Given its experimental nature in the context of its network, most of Euphoria’s natural comparisons lie outside of premium cable," says Alison Herman. "Euphoria is emphatically not a message- or issues-centric show in the vein of Degrassi or Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. (It does, however, have one crucial Degrassi link in Drake, onetime child star of Canadian television and current executive producer of Euphoria.) But its principals are so concerned with distancing themselves from such shows that Euphoria inevitably becomes the yin to their yang, defining itself by the riskiness and un-PCness the competition lacks...Euphoria is going for something closer to Gossip Girl minus network censors, or an American version of the landmark British show Skins. After the American reboot’s infamous flop, there’s certainly an opening."
    • It's interesting to compare Euphoria's treatment of teens to Game of Thrones: "Rather than simply being scandalized by the sex and drug use on Euphoria, viewers could take a breath and ask what its presence is telling us about the world of these teens," says Soraya Nadia McDonald. "To borrow an example from another genre, both rape and consensual sex on Game of Thrones reflected the patriarchal nature of the Seven Kingdoms. They were depicted as natural consequences of the way gender functioned there: Women were dismissed and assumed to be either unworthy or incapable of holding power. Even female characters who escape gender-based violence, such as Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, are shaped by the atmosphere that harbors it. What’s equally fascinating and disturbing about Euphoria is that it’s not set in a vaguely medieval universe full of giants, dragons and ice zombies. Its purview is suburban America, right now, and it’s not a pretty sight. Right alongside the existence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the heroines who inspire the dutiful good girls of Booksmart, there’s a country full of kids who simply are not all right, and the sex in Euphoria is symptomatic of that."
    • Euphoria isn't a superficial display of bad teen behavior: "Boldly provocative and shockingly explicit, the new drama series offers an unflinching portrait of teen life today that’s teeming with graphic sex, drug use and violence," says Mike Nemetz. "(This makes Riverdale look about as edgy as the squeaky-clean Archie comics it’s based on.) But Euphoria ...isn’t just a superficial parade of bad behavior: It also looks deeply into these teenagers’ minds and souls, and tells their stories with an intoxicating visual style that pulsates with life."
    • Euphoria is too intriguing to ignore, even if it's hard to watch: "This show isn’t an easy watch, nor a particularly pleasant one," says Caroline Framke. "It’s often brash and blunt, defiantly refusing to tie up loose ends or let its characters take easy ways out. But just like the teens it depicts with such staggering candor, once you get past its immediate attempts to hold the audience at arms length, Euphoria has an undeniable pull that makes it too intriguing to ignore."
    • There’s an especial dullness to Euphoria’s provocation: "For one thing," says Willa Paskin, "there is the relentlessness of its perspective, which makes room for every imagined teenage trauma or misbehavior but no room for joy, fun, or unsullied desire. For another thing, there’s addiction, which is boring. Like so many diseases, it’s in charge, and it reduces people to automatons, going through the same motions for the same high. Probably the best recent show about drug addiction, Russian Doll, was so wise about the essential monotony of addiction that it compressed the mandatory scene in which its protagonist gets really messed into a quick montage and instead addressed the repetition compulsion through a literal time loop."
    • Zendaya is an absolute revelation: "Zendaya displays a surprisingly acute ability to be instantly grounded and real, whether she's asked to be drugged out (frequently); at a remove from the sexual circus going on around her (forming or shielding her own identity); trying to go to school and function as something other than the girl people call a 'ghost' because they thought she died over the summer; being a big sister to her impressionable little sister (who found Rue when she overdosed); or proving/lying to her mother that she's fine and won't relapse (she will)," says Tim Goodman. "It's an exceptional performance. And Zendaya is also called on to narrate the series, a conceit that usually doesn't work..."
    • What sets Euphoria apart are the penises: "It offers drugs, despair, danger and lots of sex, in rough, violent, inappropriate, illegal and mortifying forms," says Mike Hale. "But what sets it apart is penises. Miles and miles of penises, in locker rooms, video chats, selfies and grainy home videos. They populate dating apps, uncomplainingly accept condoms and in one case get masturbated in plain view of a webcam. Even for HBO, it’s more penises than we’ve seen since Oz, and that was set in a men’s prison. Which isn’t to say they’re gratuitous, or gratuitous without reason, if that makes sense."
    • Teen TV these days can be dark, but Euphoria is much darker: "Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are Archie Comics twisted by murder, organized crime and the occult," says Judy Berman. "In an apt metaphor for kids fighting a generational war, Marvel’s Runaways battle their own villainous parents. Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why helped make teen suicide a YA talking point. But Euphoria, an extremely TV-MA series that premieres June 16 on HBO, may be the first teen drama to fully exploit the Xanax-numbed aesthetic that defines Gen Z in the popular consciousness."
    • Conan O'Brien mocks Euphoria with fake "Ding-A-Lings" ad
    • Euphoria cast hopes the show starts a conversation about the realities of teen life
    • Creator Sam Levinson recalls how his personal addiction struggles inspired Euphoria: "I spent the majority of my teenage years in and out of hospitals, rehabs and halfway houses. I was a drug addict, and I'd take anything and everything until I couldn't hear or breathe or feel."
    • Zendaya says Euphoria isn't "The Moral Message Show": “This show is in no way to tell people what the right thing to do is. This is not ‘The Moral Message Show.’ This is to inspire compassion among people for other human beings and to understand that everyone has a story you don’t know about, a battle that they’re fighting that you don’t understand. I don’t find the show shocking, but there will be people who do.”

    TOPICS: Euphoria, HBO, Drake, Sam Levinson, Zendaya, Teen TV