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The Addictive Chills and Thrills of “Euphoria”

The teen drama “Euphoria,” which is now in its second season, airs once a week: a lucky thing, since even a single episode of the series can feel like a binge. The first episode of Season 2 contains one erect penis and two flaccid ones, a drug-dealing grandmother in hot pants, a girl shooting up in a car, a twelve-year-old with face tattoos, some bathroom coitus, a near-overdose on opioids—thwarted by a snort of Adderall—and a baby eating cigarette butts. This is about as close as television gets to endurance art. A grab bag of music-video-style moments, satirical pastiches, druggy fantasy sequences, quasi-pornographic sexual encounters, and high-octane action scenes, “Euphoria” is a stomach-turning, hectic, maximalist experience: an audacious mess that, if not always pleasurable, it is impossible to dismiss or look away from.

The show, which is based on an Israeli series of the same name, was created in 2019 by Sam Levinson, for HBO. Levinson is thirty-seven, and the son of the film director Barry Levinson. He struggled with drug dependency in his youth, and seems to have converted his personal experience from him into the show’s operatic vision. The series is narrated by the seventeen-year-old Rue, played by the former Disney child star Zendaya, tangle-haired and pie-eyed in the role. Rue is a pill addict fresh out of rehab, following an overdose, but, as she insists in the show’s pilot, she has “no intention of staying clean.” Her father de ella died when she was fourteen, compounding a host of mental-health issues that she had been struggling with—and receiving medication for—since early childhood: OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, possible bipolar disorder. But is the source of Rue’s her troubles her own psychic makeup her, or, simply, the way we live now? “I was born three days after 9/11,” she drones affectlessly, as images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers play on a delivery-room TV, in a flashback. “I know it all seems sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system, nor did I fuck it up.”

Rue’s friends are post-9/11 babies, too, and their everyday reality, in an unnamed Southern California suburb, seems engineered to inject despair into the hearts of any viewers who are foolish enough to still believe that the so-called children are our future. They include Nate (Jacob Elordi), a hot, violent quarterback with daddy issues; Jules (Hunter Schafer), an artistic young trans woman with mommy issues, who is Rue’s best friend and her love interest; and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), an insecure classmate who gets a confidence boost by becoming a cam girl, “collecting her motherfucking bag” from a variety of “pay pigs” whom she humiliates online. We also have Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), a wide-eyed love addict; Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie’s good-girl sister; McKay (Algee Smith), a stressed-out football player; and Maddy (Alexa Demie), Nate’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, who teaches herself how to mimic porn stars in bed, because “if you make a guy feel confident and powerful . . . they’ll do anything.” (One thing Nate does is get her a chinchilla coat just like that of her idol, Ginger, Sharon Stone’s cunning showgirl in Scorsese’s “Casino.”) Skulking in the background are the sensitive Fez (Angus Cloud), who is a drug dealer, and Ashtray (Javon Walton), his trigger-happy younger brother and business partner. There’s also Nate’s father, Cal (Eric Dane), a successful contractor who will stop at nothing to hide his rapey sexual encounters with various younger gay men and trans women, Jules among them, whom he pursues on a dating app under the handle “DominantDaddy .” Season 2 brings in a few new characters, among them Elliot (Dominic Fike), a classmate who loves drugs almost as much as Rue does; and Laurie (Martha Kelly), a dealer whose suburban-mom looks and creepily flat manner make her the most terrifying character in recent television.

Clearly, there’s a lot to work with here. But despite the potential juiciness of these characters, “Euphoria” is not a show to watch for deep dives into its protagonists’ psychologies—counterintuitive for a show where so much circles around addiction and mental health. Rue is supposedly our emotional center, and the show uses her suffering from her as a vector to telegraph characterological fullness, but these attempts often feel unsatisfying, partly because the show is unable to pick a consistent tone. When it comes to Rue’s psychic condition, “Euphoria” veers from flippant to grandiose and back again, such as in a Season 1 episode in which she is admitted to the hospital with a kidney infection because she was too depressed to go pee. As soon as we begin to sympathize with her extreme anhedonic haze of her, her narration of her punctuates it with cracks about watching “Love Island” for twenty-two hours straight. The show itself seems unsure about Rue’s motives for her. In the second episode of Season 2, Rue and Elliot discuss their respective drug use in a scene of rare quiet intimacy, and agree that there is no single reason why a person becomes an addict. “Well, my dad died, so I started doing drugs,” Rue scoffs, mimicking her rehab spiel from her. “Everyone’s looking for cause and effect but sometimes shit’s just, like, is what it is,” Elliot says. This would be a good critique of how addiction is commonly perceived, if not for the fact that the series spends so much time trying to establish a connection between Rue’s trauma and her drug use.

Jules, perhaps thanks to Schafer’s consistently strong, sensitive performance, comes closest to embodying depth. In a special episode that came out last year, which consisted largely of Jules’s meeting with a therapist, the show emerged at its most humane, offering intelligent and complex insights into Jules’s doubts and hopes about her femininity and her process of transitioning. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the one episode in the series that was written not by Levinson alone but in collaboration with Schafer herself.) The interactions between Jules and Rue, who enter a relationship in Season 1, are less revealing, often relying on long pauses and seemingly meaningful gazes rather than making clear what exactly brings the two together or what keeps them there, apart from Rue’s neediness. (At one point, Jules admits to her therapist that she feels like she knows a boy who catfished her online better than she does Rue, an assessment that rang true to me.) Other characters, too, seem like ciphers. “You think I’m here because I’m interested in you? . . . As if what you have to say is so fucking interesting? You’re so fucking boring,” a gross, horny boy tells Cassie after she rejects him, and, while the scene is awful to watch, as a viewer I found myself wishing that Cassie did have more to say.

Recently, I saw a tweet opining that the “Euphoria” kids might be happier if they had pets. The thrust behind this statement made total sense to me, even though the reason for the lack of animals is obvious. “Euphoria” is at its best when it piles on amoral chills and thrills, not when the characters are doing everyday tasks like walking the dog. (The popular “Euphoria High” meme on TikTok, in which users poke fun at the outrageously sexy getups and bad behavior of the kids on the show, similarly gets at the series’ comically fantastical vibe.) In other words, one shouldn’t watch “Euphoria” for its realism. In the early twenty-tens, I watched a couple episodes of the Israeli series on which Levinson’s version is based, and, while it, too, had a pointedly blunt attitude toward teens and the sex and drugs they indulge in, its look was real – life unremarkable. The American “Euphoria,” meanwhile, is a thing of beauty, a stylized, heightened, art-directed fantasia of a dark suburbia where really bad things look really good—a glitter-strewn, hip-hop- and torch-ballad-scored Grand Guignol. A girl’s face might be pushed roughly into a pillow as a boy goes at her aggressively from behind, but her elaborate, inventive makeup job de ella will continue to look tutorial-worthy, even if her face de ella expresses misery. (Indeed, an hours-long, manic beauty routine that Cassie obsessively practices in Episode 3 of this season, in order to draw Nate’s attention from her to her, recently became fodder for product listicles in a variety of online publications.

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