It’s not unusual to see copious amounts of sex and drugs on HBO. But “Euphoria,” a drama starring Zendaya as an anxiety-prone addict, still shocks.
But unlike most HBO dramas, “Euphoria” is expressly about teenagers. In between monotone musings about her childhood, multiple rehab stints and relapses, Zendaya’s character, Rue, evokes a uniquely adolescent brand of angst — while justifying her continued drug use: “The world’s coming to an end and I haven’t even graduated high school yet,” she says.
“Euphoria,” based on an Israeli series of the same name, is boundary-pushing in the vein of Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 film, “Kids,” and the British series “Skins,” which followed a rotating cast of troubled teenagers in South West England. (A short-lived MTV adaptation drew ample controversy but fell flat.)
Sam Levinson, who created the American version of “Euphoria,” has said that he infused his own experience as a young drug addict into the grim script, which pulls no punches in tackling teenage trauma.
Surprising no one, the conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council has already issued a stern warning about “Euphoria’s” graphic content, asserting that shows about teens attract, well, teens. But adolescent drama has connected with adults since fictional Brenda Walsh was in high school. Teen TV — the increasingly appreciated genre of television about, but not exclusively for, the 17-and-younger set — has long featured teenagers played by 20-something actors. The viewing audience at home is often much older.
One pioneer of teen TV was “Gossip Girl,” which quickly became a cultural phenomenon (and frequent target of the watchdogs) after its premiere in 2007. By the third season, when a threesome involving two main characters (and guest star Hilary Duff) raised eyebrows, a rep for the network noted that the median age of the show’s viewers was 27.
A decade later, broad appeal has become a hallmark of the teen TV genre. Last year, a New York Times report cited a jaw-dropping 37.2 as the median age for CW’s Archie Comics-inspired drama “Riverdale,” which follows the increasingly supernatural adventures of a group of very beautiful high school students. The data for streaming networks — which, like HBO, aren’t beholden to advertisers in the way that the CW is — is harder to come by. But Netflix, in particular, has embraced teen-centered shows that appear to be geared toward anyone who will watch them.
The approach has yielded mixed results. “13 Reasons Why” made style choices that seemed at odds with its noble but deeply flawed attempt to call out bullying and other issues faced by teens. Was it a show meant to be watched by kids, parents or parents watching with their kids? The ambiguity of the drama’s intended audience was underscored by controversy surrounding its treatment of suicide and sexual assault. On the other hand, “Élite,” a dark, prep school drama set in Spain, gained a cult following with a murder mystery implicating a sexy roster of immensely wealthy teenagers.
Under HBO’s almost-anything-goes umbrella, “Euphoria” feels like teen TV on drugs (literally and figuratively). “Élite” is the only thing that comes remotely close, but the Spanish-language drama is so far beyond reality for most people — one character is the daughter of a marquess — that it hardly feels like a show about teenagers at all. Levinson and HBO execs, meanwhile, have touted “Euphoria’s” authenticity. Casey Bloys, head of programming for HBO, told the Hollywood Reporter that there is a point behind even the most risque scenes.
“It’s not sensational to be sensational,” he told the magazine. “It may seem boundary-pushing, and the idea of putting them on TV may be, but somebody lived them.” Zendaya echoed that sentiment in a recent New York Times interview. “I kind of accepted that people will find it polarizing,” the 22-year-old actress said. “Whether people like it or not, it’s real. I’m telling somebody’s story.”
Fittingly, one of the producers behind “Euphoria” is a veteran of teen TV. Drake, who signed onto the project alongside his manager Future the Prince, spent years on the Canadian teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” before becoming a chart-topping rapper. “Degrassi,” a franchise that has spanned decades, is the gold standard of adolescent melodrama. “If the kids are talking about it, we should talk about it in our show,” co-creator Linda Schuyler told The Post in 2015.
That ethos led to story lines about sexuality, gender identity, school shootings, teen pregnancy, abortion, drug use, self-harm, suicide, sexual assault and consent, to name a few. For years, “Degrassi,” the rare teen show to cast actual teens, celebrated its frank approach with the tagline: “It goes there.” But the series that brought Aubrey Graham into our cultural consciousness doesn’t hold a candle to “Euphoria,” which arguably packs more sex and drugs into its first one-hour episode than “Degrassi” featured in its 40-year history.
“Euphoria” does take a few pages from the “Degrassi” playbook. In the first episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a young girl arranges to meet a boy she has been talking to online, only to discover that he is actually an adult. One “Euphoria” scene has a similar setup, but the technology is more accessible and the outcome is much more devastating. And like “Degrassi,” the HBO drama takes on issues relevant to the moment — from transphobia to Rue’s distinctly Gen-Z anxiety. The show has also tapped into current discourse behind the scenes: An intimacy coordinator helped actors through the show’s often unsettling sex scenes.
So far, reviews have been mixed on whether “Euphoria” is successful in its gritty depiction of children on the cusp of adulthood; critics overwhelmingly agree that the show is both sad and sexually explicit. But edgy teen dramas aren’t exactly in short supply these days. If “Degrassi” went there because it had to, “Euphoria” goes there (and there and, OMG, there) because it can.