‘Euphoria’ is the Dark Teen Odyssey 2019 Needs

Forget everything you’ve read about Euphoria. Few TV series have arrived with the baggage and pearl-clutching that accompanied the premiere of HBO’s teen epic. Anyone following Drake, Fox News, or A24 on Twitter tuned in already aware of the show’s unforgiving and potentially exploitative approach to teenage existence, particularly its handling of sex and drugs. And while controversy will almost certainly continue as the series progresses, it’s a distraction from the truth of the matter: with Euphoria, creator Sam Levinson and series lead Zendaya have delivered the first great teen drama for the iPhone generation. And as a member of that generation who still hasn’t shaken high school three years later, what impresses me most about Euphoria is its uncanny understanding of what it feels like to grow up while the world outside of our classrooms and phones is on the verge of collapse.

The series kicks off with an ambitious and sweepingly emotional pilot directed by Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back). The first five minutes are a breathless recounting of Rue’s (Zendaya) 17 years on this Earth, from her birth three days after 9/11 to her return from rehab just in time for junior year. It’s a nightmarish yet beautifully realized prologue that sets the tone for this world, a loosely connected kaleidoscope of teens both popular and on the fringes; where growing up means being beaten into submission by national trauma, prescription drugs, and most significantly, ever-present screens.

But don’t mistake this for a simple “kids are not all right” narrative  —  as the rest of the episode shows us, the teens of Euphoria are sharper and more inventive than ever, with endlessly creative ways of eluding drug tests, making boyfriends jealous, or finding a Friday night hookup. This is the story of a group of teenagers doing everything they can to survive, maybe even thrive, in the world laid out for them. Whether or not their volatile emotional states can sustain the burden of that world is another story, an angle explored to great effect in the show’s first hour by way of Rue and her addiction’s effect on her family, or her new bestie Jules’ (Hunter Schaefer) uneasy navigation of the local Grindr-verse, or the toxic push and pull between popular classmates Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Maddie (Alexa Demie).

There are many more narrative threads set up throughout the premiere to varying degrees of success, but what brings this feverish mosaic together is an astonishing visceral style that elevates the substance. Euphoria is obsessed with subjective first-person experience, going to great lengths to put you in the headspace of its young characters and the distorted world they live in, both real and digital. Levinson’s urgent and sometimes frantic script is elevated by Frizzell’s empathetic and funny direction, as well as Marcell Rev’s God-like cinematography, which culminates in such sequences as a Fred Astaire-influenced drug trip and a party sequence that would make Scorsese sweat.

Most surprising is composer Labrinth’s bold and distinctive score, which oscillates between hard drones, airy synths and warm, organic instruments like piano and guitar. And of course there’s the soundtrack, an essential component of any high school classic; when Andy Williams’ heartbreak classic “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” gives way to Beyoncé’s defiant anthem “Hold Up” for the series title card, you’ll know this show is gunning for an updated definition of cinematic ecstasy.

While the outrage  —  as well as legitimate concerns  —  over the show’s “dangerous” combination of graphic sex and carefree drug intake is nothing new for the teen genre in both TV and film, the way Euphoria presents these facets of teen life set it far above the rest. These are coping mechanisms, nothing more than intermittent distractions from these teenagers’ chaotic daily lives. And while the patriarchy and budding toxic masculinity hang high over the proceedings (including an online database of nudes and a literal “Dominant Daddy” tied to two of the characters), these girls have spectacular agency over their bodies and the desperate young men around them, unfazed by their ignorance and cruelty. As for the sex, there’s certainly a flashy excessiveness to the pool sex and a particularly shocking choking scene, but the way in which Jules’ motel hookup is shot, ending with a prolonged, uncomfortable close-up on her disheveled face during and afterward, points to a more nuanced and delicate approach.

And of course, none of these things would truly work without its young cast firing on all cylinders. This is a show with multiple extreme close-ups on faces, and sustained sequences of characters saying nothing as they interact with each other via phone, each micro-expression and eyebrow twitch speaking for them as they react to texts and memes. It’s a tall order for audiences still unaccustomed to seeing modern existence played straight, so it helps that this cast is effortlessly sympathetic and engaging. You’ve already heard plenty about Zendaya’s career-defining turn as Rue, a disturbingly well-adjusted addict while also a mascot for all the exhausted middle-class suburban kids out there, and without a doubt, she is the beating heart of the series. But there are breakout stars abound here: every young actress in the cast is phenomenal, with Schaefer, Demie, and Barbie Ferreira each giving us a window into very different teen girl experiences with effortless humor and physicality. Even Elordi and Algee Smith’s characters, who are admittedly under-explored in the first hour, promise an exciting opportunity for exploring teen masculinity.

These young stars and their characters, and Levinson’s observant and clearly well-researched ear for their language are key to why Euphoria is so sorely needed for a generation raised on a billion different streaming sites and yet still desperate for true understanding on screen. Similar to the teens in Larry Clark’s earlier works (particularly Bully) or Gregg Araki’s Apocalypse trilogy, these characters are a distillation of the systems and failings of the society around them, placing themselves in dire situations and guided by a desperate logic that only makes sense in the context of their daily lives. But what makes it impossible for Euphoria to judge or cast a loaded gaze onto these kids is its overarching commitment to empathy and ever-shifting perspective. To understand these kids you have to see and hear like them.

But for all its apocalyptic verve and anxious undercurrents, Euphoria brings with it an unexpected feeling: relief. 2019 has brought with it a great purging of the stress of our current times, expressed in various ways from Us to Chernobyl to Her Smell. This show is no different, and it has arrived at two crucial turning points: the end of a particularly upsetting and hyperreal decade, as well as the resurgence of bold and engaging teen cinema. With its many asides and immersive settings, this is the first time peak TV has bothered to treat coming-of-age with the thematic scope and visual overload usually reserved for period pieces and crime sagas.

Time, perspective and truth are played with here in a way only a show made today could ever do. Many reviews have made this show out to be some kind of Black Mirror installment, a terrifying or fantastical exaggeration of the current teen experience. Maybe high school parties don’t actually look this dreamily expensive, and maybe these teens’ stories intertwine in ways too convenient for real life. But there’s an immense truth to Euphoria in the collective anxiety it conveys. In the words of that aforementioned Beyoncé needle drop, “Something don’t feel right, because it ain’t right.”

Fernando Andrés: @fernandoeandres 21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.