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‘Euphoria’ took risks for the right reasons

Jules (Hunter Schafer), left, and Rue (Zendaya) in an episode of "Euphoria." (Eddy Chen/HBO)

Note: This story contains spoilers for the season finale of HBO’s “Euphoria.”

Days before “Euphoria” premiered in June, the Hollywood Reporter ran a piece with a headline that asked, “How much teen sex and drugs is too much?” The mild apprehension behind that question infiltrated most early discussions of the HBO drama, an exceedingly explicit show about suburban teenagers in California that, as creator Sam Levinson has said, isn’t really intended for a teenage audience at all.

A network executive told the magazine “Euphoria” wouldn’t be “sensational to be sensational,” and the first season, which wrapped Sunday night, largely backed that promise. While some remained wary of moments in which the beautifully choreographed show appeared to favor style over substance, critics seemed to warm up to it as the weeks went by. For curious adults — including Leonardo DiCaprio, a professed fan — “Euphoria” is a brutally honest answer to what growing up Gen Z might be like.

It’s an answer and not the answer, of course, as there are surely kids out there who identify more with the demure Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow, who barely gets screen time) than with her depicted peers, whose actions are more likely to shock viewers. But Levinson consistently contextualizes their actions in a way that aims to explain without providing excuses — starting with Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a somewhat unreliable narrator who serves as our primary lens into the high schoolers’ wild world.

Review: ‘Euphoria’ is a depressing, dirty show about teenagers. Of course you’ll watch.

The season begins with Rue’s return home from rehab, where she spent the summer after an overdose, and ends with her relapsing after three months clean. The six months in between — she still used for the first three, unbeknown to her worried mother — paint a complex portrait of what life becomes for not only the person in recovery, but also for those around them. Levinson’s own struggles inform his depiction of Rue, who also has bipolar disorder, as is addressed in the penultimate episode of the season. Manic episodes inspire her to figure out why her best friend, Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), has been so distant, while depression gives Rue a kidney infection, and the episode its title: “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed.”

Rue’s season-long arc deals with her inability to break down the walls she built up throughout the course of her father’s terminal illness, the period in which she began to use. She attributes her early relapses to a lack of care about her own well-being but, after getting closer to Jules, reevaluates that stance. Of course, relying on another teenager for emotional stability isn’t the healthiest way to go about sobriety, as Rue’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor warns her, but Levinson leans toward depicting reality in its harshest form.

As free-spirited as she is, Jules’s escapades sometimes steer her toward manic pixie territory — but the show manages to add depth to the character when, for example, she wonders whether she might hook up with so many men as a means to “conquer femininity.” (The show addresses the fact that Jules, like the actress who plays her, is trans but is careful not to exploit this.)

Jules also struggles under the pressure of having Rue’s well-being hinge upon the state of their emotional relationship, the toxic nature of which seems to cement in Rue’s mind in the finale, when she bails on their sudden plans to run away to the big city. For Jules, this is compounded by the stress of having the violent school quarterback, Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), who tries to suppress his own queerness, catfish her on a dating app before blackmailing her with her nude photos.

With rampant drug use and graphic sex scenes, ‘Euphoria’ is the latest teen TV show that isn’t actually meant for teens

While Rue, Jules and Nate determine the direction of “Euphoria,” Levinson tries to do their classmates justice as well. Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) becomes an edgy cam girl to reject her innocent, virginal reputation but, in the end, recognizes there was nothing wrong with how she was in the first place. Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) finally comes to terms with the fact that her relationship with the abusive Nate won’t end well for either of them, though her friends seem to think she’ll continue to fall into it time and time again. Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney), Lexi’s older sister, is saddled with the teen-centric drama’s cliche pregnancy story line, but the show at least tries to turn it into a catalyst for Cassie to think about her own future.

Unlike many of its peers — such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has increasingly become proof that drama series don’t always require lengthy seasons — “Euphoria” could have benefited from a few more episodes to fully flesh out some of the characters who simply exist within the universe. Fans have argued since the start that Fezco (Angus Cloud), Rue’s regretful drug dealer, deserves as an episode of his own, as the snippets we see of his life lay the groundwork for a rich backstory.

While it lacks in certain areas, Levinson’s risky storytelling highlights his potential, as well as that of his young characters. Luckily, HBO renewed “Euphoria” for a second season early last month, giving Levinson — and the teenagers — ample opportunity to grow.