There are a lot of demands on HBO right now. A new corporate owner, the recent exit of its longtime chief executive, the intensity of streaming competition, the creative challenge of keeping subscribers interested in something other than dragons. Not everything the network tries will be a hit, but the effort is almost always worth watching. Even now in the Netflix era, no one takes a risk like HBO does.
So before I launch into what will read like a disapproving review of Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria,” a depressing and occasionally foul attempt to reach a “YA” audience (“young adult,” the exact parameters of which grow more elusive all the time), I do want to acknowledge that the show is everything it sets out to be: provocative, disturbing, nihilistic and naughty. To all this I would add that “Euphoria” can be heartbreaking and compulsively watchable. It won’t lack for attention — and perhaps that’s the real point.
Set in a California anyburb, it’s the story of a teenage drug addict named Rue (played with studied remoteness by actress-singer Zendaya), who is facing a new school year after a summer spent in rehab, following an overdose. Unrepentantly, Rue resumes using, supplied by her conflicted dealer, Fez (Angus Cloud). She browbeats her friends into providing the urine she submits to her mother for regular tests and lies about her sobriety during Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Even for an addict, the character is written and played with a suffocating degree of teen callousness. Somewhere I imagine Bret Easton Ellis must feel like a proud grandfather.
Rue’s world brightens some with the arrival of Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender transfer student who moves to town with her father. Early on we see the confidence with which Jules sneaks off to a motel for a rough sexual encounter with a married man (“Grey’s Anatomy’s” Eric Dane) she meets online, who, because it’s 2019, records the encounter for future viewings. By now we’re fully immersed in the casually deplorable world which Rue and Jules inhabit — at a blowout house party, a group of boys film themselves having sex with Kat (Barbie Ferreira). It’s her first time, which will soon make the rounds online.
In the name of verisimilitude, all of this is presented as frankly and openly as TV might get before it actually crosses into the realm of the pornographic. “Euphoria” has been made with some care — much has been made of the show’s use of “intimacy coordinators” and such — but I don’t think that’s going to prevent most parents from passing out cold when they see it.
You know those every-parent’s-nightmare stories that the local news likes to deliver about misbehaving teens? Please wave some smelling salts over Doreen Gentzler and company, because it’s all horrifically captured in full (and full-frontal) display — snorted, inhaled, texted, sexted, sucked, pounded, beaten, bloodied and, with frightening regularity, uploaded for peers to mock and share.
I have to stop here for a second to admit that, aside from not having any children of my own, I also probably belong on some John Hughes-themed Caribbean cruise for fogies, where special guest Molly Ringwald will conduct a morning seminar on how we can all get by in a post-Long Duk Dong society. After lunch there’ll be a panel about how glad we were to be teenagers without an Internet. Part of me watches “Euphoria” and wonders about the future of teenagers, not as people, but as a concept. Has the species outlived its old definition? For that matter, should high school even exist anymore?
The recent movie “Booksmart” — a comedy about two nerdy, straight-arrow girls who decide to let their freak flags fly for just a bit — is probably more my speed. Heck, even the edgy Archie gang of CW’s “Riverdale” aren’t nearly as dysthymic and debauched as the teenagers Levinson has imagined here. Watching four episodes of “Euphoria” has made me more appreciative of recent, comparably more tender explorations of the adolescent id, such as Netflix’s “Sex Education” and Hulu’s “Pen15.” It also reminds me of all the hand-wringing that accompanied Larry Clark’s 1995 film “Kids.” These kids are basically those kids, and I hope none of them are your kid.
“Euphoria” is adapted from an Israeli series of the same name, which, if nothing else, may offer an explanation as to why the show feels foreign — as in unrelatable and vaguely alien. The rest is mainly a puzzle: beautifully shot, artfully composed, nevertheless unsettling and needlessly cruel. To really get the show, one must shed any notion that a teenager can be happy or satisfied — even in moments of chemical or sexual ecstasy. The show defies any notion that stories are something that build toward a moral or a theme or even a central idea.
Instead, “Euphoria” is everything a teenager might want in a TV show: an extreme depiction of teens who are worse off than one’s self. A psychopathic jock with anger and daddy issues; a girl tempted to sell herself online; teenagers debasing themselves to impress others, preoccupied with mutual ruin.
Structurally, it teaches us to look at life as a steady, random stream of texts and shares, which occur between actual incidents, most of which are harmful. The narrative never coheres because it’s not really supposed to. Alluring yes, but far from great television. I suspect approval is the last thing “Euphoria” hopes to find.
Euphoria (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.