Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria” has become a crowd favorite: Ethereal makeup. Captivating cinematography and visuals. An aptly timed soundtrack. A stunning cast led by Hunter Schafer and Zendaya.
Warning: Spoilers below.
The series has spawned hundreds of TikTok videos citing character Maddy Perez’s caustic one-liners, emulating the “uniform” of “Euphoria High School,” and theorizing which colleges the characters would attend. (Yet the show has never alluded to any character having any aspirations whatsoever, unless you count McKay’s college football journey or Maddy’s dreams of becoming a lavish housewife.)
Adapted from an Israeli series of the same name, “Euphoria” follows a young and jaded Rue Bennett (Zendaya) as she emerges from rehab and returns to high school. While the 17-year-old initially has no intention of staying sober, she encounters Jules Vaughn, a new student who changes everything for her.
As Rue’s sobriety and her star-crossed love story take endless twists and turns, the series expands to show a group of students at East Highland High School in California grappling with sex, substances, social media and … that’s it. That’s literally it.
That’s also not enough. “Euphoria” needs an actual, enthralling plot. Instead, the series is shrouded in sensationalism and shock value, utilizing trauma as the sole vehicle for a shoddy storyline and lackluster character development. Its greatest pitfall is the absence of an objective.
The first season is an entryway to each of the characters’ lives — who, how and why they are the way they are. Besides moments of moderately intense dialogue, clandestine sex in various locations, assault and battery, and of course, graphic, gory scenes, what really happens over the course of eight episodes?
Nate abuses Maddy, inciting their constant on-and-off-again relationship. Kat experiments with being a cam girl, wrestling with her virginity, feelings for Ethan and body image. On a mission to find out who his father is sleeping with, Nate lures Jules with his online alter ego; consequently, Rue threatens Nate. Cassie gets an abortion. Rue and Jules split up, and Rue relapses.
While there is an onslaught of tragedies happening, I’m still unsure what the endgame is. The series’ progression is riddled with traumatic events without building to any resolution or closure.
Akin to the godfather of teen trauma series, “Degrassi,” “Euphoria” is an exploration of how a set of teens navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence — drugs, debauchery and all. Viewers have argued ad nauseam about the verisimilitude of the series — whether it’s an accurate representation, whether it’s indicative of their high school experiences — but that isn’t the problem.
“Degrassi” was an award-wining teen soap that served almost as a cautionary tale, tackling issues such as abortion, assault, gun violence and more. Similar to “Euphoria,” it was messy, real and beloved. And, while a moral high ground is neither a must-have nor necessary motif, there was character growth or devolution propelling the series — which “Euphoria” lacks.
Despite seemingly rich personal backgrounds that provide a wealth of possibilities, the newer show’s characters are relatively static. Season 1 serves as an exposition that should, in theory, present a goal post that characters will be working toward. However, it just raises more questions about where “Euphoria” is heading.
Is it inching toward retribution? Redemption? Revenge? Apart from Kat, the teens do not reflect on themselves or their decisions; Nate is simply evil, Cassie is perpetually struggling, and it’s unclear whether Rue wants to be sober for her own sake or merely to appease Jules.
Is this the extent of growth we’re affording teens on screen? There is no concept of right or wrong choices, despite their being at an age when self-determination is vital to their development. Everything seems frivolous and pointless, and the characters are always careening toward their downfall as we absent-mindedly watch and applaud.
In between Seasons 1 and 2, hungry fans were held off with two “bridge episodes.” One featured Rue mostly sitting at a diner with her sponsor, contemplating the value of her own life for the first time, and the other featured Jules reflecting with her therapist about gender identity, the male gaze and her relationship with Rue.
Initially a promising change of pace, any semblance of growth is thwarted in Season 2. Lexi is fawning over the drug dealer that arguably contributed to the decline of her relationship with her ex-best friend, Rue. Suddenly, Cassie is knowingly sleeping with her alleged best friend’s boyfriend, understanding fully that Maddy would kill her if she knew.
There was nothing that prompted the backstabbing — no argument, no shade, no slick comment — besides a drink too many and a manipulative, evil white boy. With countless dream lapses and flashes of nudity, the visuals of Episode 2 are appalling enough to distract viewers from the haphazard composition of the episode. Most importantly, it doesn’t give us an answer as to why Cassie is behaving the way she is.
The fact that she “loves being loved” doesn’t warrant betrayal — why is she creating her own personal hell? Is she punishing herself for getting an abortion? The thoughtlessness behind this never-ending series of unfortunate events cannot merely be attributed to “teen angst;” it simply doesn’t make sense, nor does it add anything to the plot. The teens in “Euphoria” are the creators of their own demise under the guise of fleeting youth, but how they landed at that point is unclear.
And rather than someone whisking them away from their self-destructive behavior, the adults are practically absent. At least in “Degrassi,” when teens pushed the limits, adults stepped in. Before Manny sought her abortion, she went to Emma’s single mother, Spike, for advice. Principals, such as Mr. Raditch or Archie “Snake” Simpson, broke up countless hallway fights, notably the ones between Manny and Paige or Alli and Bianca.
Despite “Euphoria” being set in high school, an environment known for forced interaction and hovering adults, they are quite literally nowhere to be found, in or out of school. Where are the parents? You’re telling me a Black mother would be this aloof to what Rue actually does in her free time — from ride-alongs with Fez to snorting drugs at parties? Or that any good parent would allow Nate’s father to waltz into their home and threaten their own child?
Questions abound about whether the children have hobbies, aspirations, dreams or even entertain the idea of desiring better for themselves. (Yes, we see Lexi — the only character who will go to college — is at the helm of a school play in the trailer.) But would audiences be watching this if Zendaya were not starring in it?
What I’m left wondering is whether watching pure degeneracy and chaos can serve as the basis for good storytelling or writing.
I’m not asking for sanitization. I am asking for substance.