Euphoria, created by Sam Levinson (writer-director of Assassination Nation and son of Rain Man filmmaker Barry Levinson) is HBO’s newest boundary-pushing television show, and it pushes boundaries in ways we have never seen before. Adapted from an Israeli miniseries, the show follows a group of high schoolers exploring the worlds of drugs, sexuality, and violence.
This series has garnered controversy because of the way in which it presents everything with unflinching brutality. The sex, the drug use, and the violence, while all simulated, are shown in a way that feels very real and gritty. Nothing about the film glorifies or romanticizes the things that are being done on screen, but the purpose of the show is not to be didactic about this behavior either. Instead, Levinson appears to be trying to portray the identity crises these characters are facing in an honest way.
The idea of sexuality really dominates the series to an extent that can admittedly become overwhelming at times. A wide range of topics are covered in the first four episodes, from discovering one’s repressed sexuality to coming into one’s gender and sexual identity. Many of these topics, especially the latter, are handled quite well. One of the show’s leads is a transgender woman (played by a trans woman actress in a clear step forward for inclusivity), and her storyline is among the most well-developed and crushing in the series.
However, when it comes to the portrayal of heterosexual relationships, the show isn’t as nuanced. Many of the portrayals of sexuality and nudity in the series seem to be excessive. This isn’t as much the case with the first episode, directed by Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back), but the next three episodes, directed by Levinson, exhibit much more of a male gaze. For example, Levinson seems to have an obsession with fingers going into mouths as can be seen multiple times in this show and in Assassination Nation, and it is just creepy.
Drug use is also rampant in the show, and it is shown in a way that provides commentary on the way in which recreational drug use is making a resurgence in the social lives of modern youth. The series is at its best when Levinson goes over-the-top and satirical, such as having a middle-school-aged drug dealer, but it also works well when he goes down-to-Earth, discussing things such as rehab and overdoses.
The show’s characters are extremely complex and dynamic, changing over the course of the first four episodes so much that you can’t help but wonder where they will be when the next four are over. Rue, portrayed by Zendaya, is the protagonist of the series, and she is definitely very compelling. The show introduces an unreliable narrator device with her in one of the episodes, but thankfully seems to abandon it. Zendaya gives a performance that is much more subtle than anything she has done before, packed with emotion and a surprising range.
At the beginning of each episode so far, we get a glimpse into the backstory of another character. Some of the supporting characters, like Jules, the trans woman who becomes Rue’s best friend, and Fezco, Rue’s drug dealer, have compelling arcs in the first four episodes that feel mostly complete. Others, like one of Rue’s classmates, Nate, show hints of potential that may be expounded upon in future episodes. There are also a few characters that simply don’t seem to be likable.
One of these such characters is Kat, a body-conscious character that explores her sexuality over the course of the first four episodes. Perhaps one reason why she is one of the less likable characters in the show is that she is involved in some of the less tasteful scenes that the series has to offer. The most frustrating thing about the character, though, is that you can tell what Levinson wants her arc to be, but it just isn’t that. Maybe it will improve in the second half of the show.
Although the writing does have a few misses, the execution of the series is absolutely phenomenal. Levinson brings a vibrant, neon-drenched style to the show, much like he did in Assassination Nation, and it is truly beautiful to look at. The cinematography is extremely fluid and contains some wonderful tracking shots. The editing is energetic and ambitious. The soundtrack is coordinated with the visuals very well.
Euphoria is by no means a show for everyone, so it is almost surprising that HBO had the confidence to give it the lead-in from Big Little Lies. Even those who are in the target audience are going to find themselves being made uncomfortable because the show isn’t made to be enjoyable. That said, if you can stomach the graphic and sometimes excessive content, the show is worth watching because of its interesting ideas and excellent execution.
Euphoria airs on HBO on Sundays at 10/9c. (Four out of eight episodes reviewed.)