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What kind of show does ‘Euphoria’ want to be?

From left, Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie and Barbie Ferreira in “Euphoria.” (Eddy Chen/HBO)

Two weeks ago, Americans sat on their couches in anticipation of what was sure to be one of the biggest televised showdowns of the year. To a certain subset, this didn’t describe the Super Bowl held near Los Angeles but a faceoff taking place a little ways off, still in California, between fictional teenagers Maddy Perez and Cassie Howard.

You see, Maddy (played by Alexa Demie) had recently discovered her best friend, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), was sleeping with Maddy’s on-and-off boyfriend, Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi). When the secret affair began, Cassie justified her actions by fixating on the fact that Maddy and Nate had been broken up for weeks. But that didn’t much matter, did it? Upon finding out, Maddy, fiery as ever, screams that she is “literally going to get violent.” Cassie, overwhelmed and conflicted as always, sputters and cries before eventually becoming silent.

Everyone else in the room is trying to stage an intervention for the series protagonist, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), who struggles with substance abuse and ran away from home after her mother realized Rue was using again.

Such chaos is typical of “Euphoria,” Sam Levinson’s HBO series that rattled audiences when it premiered three years ago. It followed in the footsteps of its teen drama predecessors with scandalous portrayals of troubled high-schoolers but upped the ante for a premium cable audience. The second season of “Euphoria,” which came to an end Sunday night, nearly doubled the viewership of the first, according to Variety. For that subset of loyal viewers, the weekly show managed to become appointment television in an era dominated by the flexibility of streaming.

Much of the shared viewing experience unfolded on social media, where the conflict between Maddy and Cassie garnered just as much interest as Rue’s storyline, if not more. That makes sense, despite a clear disparity in the gravity of their respective situations; the show itself seemed to grant each plot equal screen time. In its second season, “Euphoria” embraced its outlandish proclivities, Maddy and Cassie in particular delivering one-liners destined to become memes within hours (e.g. Cassie yelling that she has “never, ever been happier” with tears streaming down her face).

The increased levity makes “Euphoria” easier to digest, but sets the show on a different path. There are meaningful elements to the storyline — such as the turmoil Maddy and Cassie face in response to Nate’s emotionally abusive behavior — but it leans into the catfight of it all, getting away from the creative risks that once made the series stand out.

Terrified of Gen Z? Sydney Sweeney and HBO can take some credit for that.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Zendaya succinctly described the challenge of a sophomore season: “It’s like we were chasing ‘Euphoria,’” she said. “We were like, ‘We need to be what we were in season one,’ and we were trying to find that spark.” The first season took the road less traveled, especially with Rue, boldly diving into the realities of teen substance abuse and its impact on those around her. The growing focus on boy drama — in another part of the show, a male classmate named Elliot (Dominic Fike) comes between Rue and her girlfriend, Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer) — still makes for a compelling watch, but ultimately plays it safe.

It’s telling that the episode best capturing the spark of the first season is one that breaks the mold entirely. HBO released two stand-alone “Euphoria” specials while the series was off air, one focused on Rue and the other on Jules. The former takes the form of an hour-long conversation at a diner between Rue and her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), presented in real time. Rue has relapsed and Ali is well aware, informing Rue that “sobriety is your greatest weapon.” She responds that “drugs are probably the only reason I haven’t killed myself.”

Their conversation is probing, devastating and at times funny, stripped of the superficial drama and flashy camera work that are essential to “Euphoria’s” brand but can distract from its heart. At its core, this is a show about teenagers grasping for their senses of purpose in a cruel world. There are glimpses of this throughout the second season; the episode in which Maddy finds out about Cassie and Nate is a standout not just for that encounter but for the explosive, extended opening scene in which Rue discovers her mother disposed of her drug stash.

When “Euphoria” works, it’s largely because of the talent of actors like Demie, Sweeney and Zendaya. The young cast has proven capable of over-the-top hilarious outbursts, but deserve just as many opportunities to navigate scenes more nuanced and varied in tone. Luckily, the wish could be granted — the series was renewed for another season, one that will hopefully overcome the second’s setback of becoming more palatable but much less remarkable.