Pilot Script Review of Euphoria
Euphoria is the very first HBO teen drama, based on an Israeli format of the same name. When the Israeli version premiered in 2012, it was compared to movies like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Larry Clark’s Kids. Those are big shoes to fill, and as I've not seen the Israeli show, I can’t say whether or not it met those expectations. Still, from a PR perspective alone, the show seems like a smart bet on HBO’s part. As the network vies for attention in this era of Peak TV, it makes sense that it would pick up a show with the potential to generate the kind of attention that 13 Reasons Why did for Netflix.
WRITTEN BY: Sam Levinson
DRAFT DATE: 4/27/17
PAGE COUNT: 64 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: We’re in the maternity ward of a New York hospital three days after 9/11. There’s a bright, fluorescent light. The camera goes down between the legs of a woman about to give birth, right into her vagina, and then inside her womb. It's here that we meet Rue, our heroine and narrator, a baby not yet ready to be torn from the comfort of her home. She puts up a fight, but loses. There she is, bloody and in the arms of her mother, Leslie. On a TV set, there are images of George W. Bush standing atop Ground Zero, facing the world saying "I can hear you! The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." People are chanting "USA! USA! USA!." A nipple is shoved into Rue’s mouth.
Through a series of shots, we’re introduced to Rue’s childhood in a white suburban middle-class neighborhood. At 4 years old, a therapist diagnoses her with Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder and possible Bipolar Disorder. As a 10 year-old, Rue is chubby and so heavily medicated as to appear catatonic. We see a montage of famous people including Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple and Britney Spears, reminding us that those with mental disorders can still achieve great things. Cut to Rue at 17, as she snorts fine powder. She tells us about her teenage years: the first dick pic she received at the age of 9, her first kiss at 12, the hand jobs and blow jobs, some of which she was emotionally coerced into.
Now she’s laying naked on the tile of the laundry room of a rando fuckboi’s parents. He’s asking her if she came. She says yes, but she’s clearly lying... and she's clearly high. Then, finally a moment of sweetness: an old home video of her trying to hula hoop in the backyard with her father. He’s encouraging her, telling her not to give up. Back to today, where she's clearly given up. She introduces us to Nate Jacobs, the star quaterback of the football team, only to confess that he was found dead in a cornfield off Route 38... and that she’s the one who killed him.
COMMENTS: The definition of Euphoria is "a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness," but there’s nothing about Rue, her “friends” or the show itself that seems to come from a happy place. Instead, this is a really, really sad and lonely place, perhaps the darkest version of a teen drama we've ever seen. In comparison, Skins and 13 Reasons Why seem like walks in the park. And it’s exactly what you'd expect from the network that brought you True Detective, The Night Of and Sharp Objects. But its representation of troubled and highly intoxicated teenagers won't be for everyone. This is clearly an adult show, and that’s where it's likely to be controversial -- teenagers and young adults will find it, whether it’s on HBO or somewhere else. And the more it will be talked about, the more they'll want to watch it.
In the context of the pilot episode, drug use may be seen as glorified or glamourized (the directing will play an important role). Or at least as an inevitable rite of passage for a “normal” teenager. I imagine the show will be smarter than that, and will want to send a message of prevention and awareness. But in a country where there’s an rampant opioid epidemic, where drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death of Americans under 50, one can’t afford to be too ambiguous on this subject and/or be seen as taking your time getting to its point. To be sure, Rue is never shown as someone who’s living her best life because of what she’s taking. It's clear that she can’t be trusted: you never know if she’s telling lies or telling the raw, disturbing truth. She's also very smart, and -- depending on how she's played by the likable young star Zendaya -- may be seen as an attractive example for those already in a vulnerable state. And that’s worrying. At the same time, done right, the show has the potential to be a game-changer... one that actually helps people.
Going back to the storytelling itself, this is a very well-crafted pilot script that's as addictive as a designer drug. It effectively jumps back and forth in time, thanks to a voice-over that even those who are allergic to the practice will appreciate. Rue's voice creates further intimacy in an already intimate tale and a certain comfort in the discomfort, until we realize that perhaps we shouldn’t believe everyting that we’re told. (Our narrator is bipolar, after all.) The mess in her head becomes more and more clear to us, as we ourselves are thrown from euphoria to paranoia. That’s quite an feat. Writer Sam Levinson clearly knows how to maintain suspense through his protagonist's voice. By the pilot's end, there are multiple mysteries to be solved. And probably more to come in future episodes.
The characters are numerous, and most of them are properly introduced, but the pilot is mostly about Rue and her friendship with Jules, a 17 year-old trans who’s new in town after her parents’ divorce and who’s starting hormone replacement therapy, making her daily life even more difficult than it already is. There are quite a few disturbing and horrifying scenes involving her and her quest for affection. (Transgender activist and runway model Hunter Schafer has been cast in the role.) And there’s Nate. Think 13 Reasons Why‘s Bryce, but even darker. You can’t escape the classic party sequence that seems to appear in every teen drama, but here too, it's ambitious -- striving to be "the druggy equivalent of the Fred Astaire dance sequence in Royal Wedding in a single take."
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Suspenseful and provocative, Euphoriaportrays a troubled group of rageful teens who traffic in internet fantasies, narcissistic dreams, drug-induced hallucinations and traumatic disorders. Done right, it promises to be more than just a TV show. In any case, it will almost certainly make headlines for HBO when it premieres.
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
[ ] PASS
[ ] CONSIDER