HBO’s latest series puts its characters through exaggerated adolescent antics, with little substance to show for it.
(Mild plot spoilers ahead.)
If you struggled to understand what Euphoria was about from its ads—an electric mix of neon, artsy camera angles, and sexy teens on drugs—watching the first four episodes of the show will leave you in relatively the same place. It’s a show about teens and drugs and sex and the incredibly vague notion that being a teen is, in fact, difficult. But what Euphoria is about isn’t nearly as interesting a question as who it’s for.
The show, created by Sam Levinson (based on an Israeli series) and executive produced by Drake, centers on Rue (Zendaya), who’s starting her junior year of high school after spending the summer in rehab. Her only friends seem to be her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) and her drug dealer, Fezco (Angus Cloud). That is, until she meets new kid Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl that Rue takes to almost as quickly as she starts using again. The setup so far seems like it could be a teen drama on almost any network from Freeform to the CW, but where Euphoria deviates, it deviates hard.
The teens in the show aren’t just using drugs, they’re licking Fentanyl off an overly tattooed drug dealer’s dagger. They’re not just having sex, they’re cam girls on PornHub and being statutorily raped by married men in skeevy motels. And they’re not just lashing out by defying their parents and staying out late; they’re stalking other classmates and beating them to a bloody and horrifying pulp in scenes of gruesome violence. Not to mention the truly incredible amount of full-frontal nudity. (It’s a lot of penises, folks. Just. A whole bunch.)
Every single plot point in the show is turned up to 11, but Euphoria refuses to lean into what could be melodramatic and campy fun. Instead, it leaves viewers grappling with a plot that’s too exaggerated to take seriously while depicting it too graphically and self-seriously to actually be enjoyable.
When the twists and turns are more punishing than enthralling, it just leaves you waiting for each episode to end rather than for the next to begin.
This feels especially true with its treatment of Jules. While Levinson (sadly) deserves credit for actually casting a trans actress to play a trans character, and Schafer’s performance is full of promise for the young star (I sincerely hope to see her in more roles in the future), so much of the character’s construction is built on the pain of the trans community in a way that doesn’t feel entirely healthy.
Jules appears relatively happy. She lives with a father that loves her and accepts her. The show doesn’t deadname her, even when recounting her past, which is truly refreshing. But these wins feel undone by multiple scenes where we watch men use and abuse her and a back story where her mother institutionalizes her.
Add to that the fact that the show’s central tension lies in having us await tragedy to befall her, and we’re treading some dangerously stereotypical territory.
The foreshadowing begins in the first episode: “She would’ve been better off just coming to MacKay’s party…” says Rue, ominously. And from that line on, it’s as if Jules’s head is in a guillotine.
It’s not enough that our entire history of mainstream media reinforces the notion that trans people should expect harm to come to them, but Euphoria plays into that assumption hard. It seems to delight in leading us to believe that something truly gruesome is about to happen to her in these early episodes, so when it doesn’t, there’s something unsettling about the relief that follows.
It would be one thing if Euphoria merely refused to comply with the tropes of violence we’ve been trained to expect in trans stories, but why it specifically wants us to believe it’s following those tropes before somewhat upending them is baffling.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait for the rest of the season to play out before we can know what to truly make of Jules, but unfortunately, that’s the only reason to bother watching at all. Shows like My So-Called Life have represented teenage life far more earnestly, while Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars have made soap-operatic plots far more fun. All Euphoria seems interested in doing is depicting the most extreme forms of teenage angst to titillate adults. Frankly, it’s not worth the anguish.
Euphoria premieres June 16th and airs Sundays on HBO.
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