This column discusses the plot of “Euphoria.”
HBO’s new drama “Euphoria,” which debuts Sunday, got the best publicity it could have asked for this week in the form of a Hollywood Reporter story that detailed the show’s depictions of “graphic nudity, violence and drug use among young people,” and asked in its headline “How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much?”
It’s the wrong question. “Euphoria” is, in fact, incredibly awkward to watch at the office because of the sheer amount of nudity it contains — some of it in the form of straight-up pornography. But it would be embarrassing to watch in almost any setting, mostly because, despite a promising young cast, “Euphoria” is banal and derivative and worse than that: It’s a series designed to profit off misplaced panic about teenagers.
“Euphoria” is narrated by a particular teen in trouble. Rue Bennett, played by Zendaya with melancholy and flashes of genuine joy, is fresh out of rehab, and is much more interested in her new best friend, Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), than in staying sober. And, by comparison with her friends, Rue’s struggles seem almost mundane. Jules, who is transgender, is using hookup apps to meet with men, including community leader Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane) and Cal’s son, star high school quarterback and budding rage-aholic Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi). Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) dedicates herself to becoming “a woman of questionable morals,” building an erotic fan-fiction empire, turning a nonconsensual sex video taken of her into a webcamming business, and cashing in bitcoin with a preteen drug dealer who seems to have wandered over from Rian Johnson’s teenage noir “Brick.”
Everyone drinks, does drugs, has sex and, apparently, reads up on the nuances of child pornography laws.
“Euphoria” is hardly the first attempt by adults to profit from pop culture that is calibrated to simultaneously panic parents and titillate kids. “Go Ask Alice,” published in 1971 as the diary of a self-destructive 15-year-old drug addict, is now generally considered to be a fictionalized work by a therapist. Director Larry Clark was 52 when “Kids,” his 1995 movie about the sex lives and substance abuse of teenagers and older children in the age of HIV, was released — though at least the movie’s writer, Harmony Korine, was 19 at the time. And, like prior entries in this genre, the main pitch for “Euphoria” is how real its depiction of teenage life is.
As part of the press campaign for the show, HBO has trotted out “Euphoria” stars including Sydney Sweeney and Storm Reid to testify to the series’ supposed authenticity. It’s a strange spectacle, since many of the young actors on the series have not had precisely archetypal childhoods: Reid’s first feature film was released since she was 10; Maude Apatow, who plays Rue’s former best friend, is the daughter of director Judd Apatow; and Zendaya herself is famously a product of the Disney star system.
More to the point, the argument they’re making isn’t necessarily true. The number of never-married teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 who have had sexual intercourse has declined, from 51 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys in 1988 to 42 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys surveyed between 2011 and 2015. The rate at which students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades use illicit drugs is down from the highs of the late 1970s, even after a rise in use in the 1990s. The year 2016 marked “the lowest levels for alcohol use and drunkenness ever recorded by the survey in the three grades combined,” according to the “Monitoring the Future” national survey on drug use. The suicide rate among people between the ages of 18 and 24 has increased between 2000 and 2017, but it remains lower than that for any age group other than children under the age of 15.
That’s not to say that kids today live in a utopia. They still have to cope with an increasingly stratified economy, the threat of climate change and the rapid emergence of new technologies that not only let them swap naked pictures, but also incentivize political radicalization. These problems aren’t just confined to teenagers, however, and, as such, they can’t be reduced to the sort of television that allows us to experience a pleasurably manageable moral crisis once a week, an hour at a time.
Ultimately, this is what feels gross about “Euphoria.“ It’s not the penises that fill the screen and the camera rolls on the characters’ phones. It’s not the bruises on Jules’s thigh from the intramuscular injections that are part of her transition regimen; or Kat’s misadventures; or even the vomit on the floor of Rue’s room after the overdose that lands her in rehab. It’s the sense that the series’ 34-year-old male creator, Sam Levinson, is laundering his experiences with addiction through a group of young, mostly female characters, and doing it in a way that suggests young people are more damaged in the aggregate than is actually the case.
“There are going to be parents who are going to be totally f------ freaked out,” Levinson told the Hollywood Reporter. He wishes. Savvier viewers, and savvier analysts of what’s going on with kids these days, will be getting their thrills and chills somewhere other than “Euphoria.”