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‘Euphoria’ (and HBO) Want to Get a Rise Out of You

Sam Levinson’s ode to teen sex and drug use both fetishizes and seriously explores its subjects, but above all, it serves as a prime example of its network’s concerted effort to expand its audience

HBO/Ringer illustration

Euphoria opens with an Axe Body Spray–strength blast of teenage angst. “I was once happy, content,” protagonist and narrator Rue (Zendaya) explains via voice-over, over footage of a fetus in the womb. “Sloshing around in my own primordial pool. Then, one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed, over and over, by the cruel cervix of my mother, Leslie. I put up a good fight, but I lost—for the first time, but not the last.” The monologue expresses a sentiment as histrionic and self-aggrandizing as it is typically adolescent: The only time Rue has ever experienced true happiness, according to Rue, was before she was born, her very existence a parent-inflicted nightmare since. You can practically hear the Lil Uzi Vert blasting in the background.

But Rue’s feelings aren’t coming to us via LiveJournal, or any of the Gen Z equivalents thereof. They’re the preamble to a glossy, star-studded, hour-long HBO drama—one that dramatizes not America’s power elite or the movers and shakers of a fictional continent but the inner lives of everyday teens. At a time when HBO has announced its intention to expand the range and scale of its once tightly curated programming slate, Euphoria represents a significant broadening of what an HBO show can be. The novelty is baked into the very premise. On the quintessential Network for Adults, Euphoria wants to tell a story about, though maybe not for, kids.

Euphoria is created by Sam Levinson, the writer-director of last year’s similarly salacious thriller Assassination Nation. (Levinson wrote and directed three of the four episodes screened for critics; he also wrote the pilot, which was directed by Augustine Frizzell.) A reimagined Salem Witch Trials in which a mass hacking escalates into a Purge-like frenzy, Assassination Nation is significantly higher-concept than Euphoria, which simply follows a group of classmates as they navigate sexuality, identity, substance use, and insecurity. The two nonetheless share a sensibility: neon-lit, highly stylized, and above all, infatuated with their own self-perceived subversion. Both projects attempt a delicate balance between sensationalizing teens’ misbehavior and empathizing with their struggles. Euphoria comes closer to having it both ways than Assassination Nation, but criticizing either for being in poor taste feels futile. It’s like telling an actual teenager they’re being obnoxious: All you’re doing is confirming their vision of the world as provocateurs (them) versus prudes (you).

One can see why HBO turned to Levinson to deliver the prestige version of a teen drama, a treatment the network has previously extended to genres like the gangster story (The Sopranos), the Western (Deadwood), and even the soap opera (Big Little Lies). In truth, Euphoria may land closest to the porn-adjacent camp of True Blood; titillation is no less a part of HBO’s legacy than filmmaking or storytelling. Levinson’s controversy-courting ethos makes him a natural fit for the platform that helped make the Brazilian wax a national phenomenon.

Euphoria nonetheless aligns with the mandate handed down by WarnerMedia chief John Stankey in a now-notorious address to HBO’s employees. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day,” Stankey said of time subscribers should spend on the service. “I want more hours of engagement.” The town hall was widely interpreted as a move toward watering down HBO’s vaunted standards of quality in the name of competition with omnibuses like Netflix. The message has since been modified, by both Stankey himself and HBO head Casey Bloys, into a higher-brow spin on the same core concept: a cash infusion from new owner AT&T would allow HBO to produce both more shows and more kinds of shows, with fewer trapped in development for years on end. Bloys estimates that 2019 alone will see a 50 percent increase in hours produced.

Stankey’s mission statement was reported in early July 2018. Euphoria, which already had a finished pilot, was ordered to series just a couple of weeks later. Even if the decision were not a direct result of HBO’s new evolution, the pursuit or at least centering of a new demographic certainly feels in line with it. In a bit of timing that doesn’t seem like a coincidence, Euphoria premieres the same week as Los Espookys, a Spanish-language comedy that stars some familiar faces, like SNL’s Fred Armisen, but is largely subtitled. HBO has always prided itself on pushing boundaries, an ethos that’s now come to include its own.

Given its experimental nature in the context of its network, most of Euphoria’s natural comparisons lie outside of premium cable. Euphoria is emphatically not a message- or issues-centric show in the vein of Degrassi or Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. (It does, however, have one crucial Degrassi link in Drake, onetime child star of Canadian television and current executive producer of Euphoria.) But its principals are so concerned with distancing themselves from such shows that Euphoria inevitably becomes the yin to their yang, defining itself by the riskiness and un-PCness the competition lacks. Bloys’s predecessor, Richard Plepler, hyped the series by saying it makes 13 Reasons look like “an after-school special.” Euphoria is going for something closer to Gossip Girl minus network censors, or an American version of the landmark British show Skins. After the American reboot’s infamous flop, there’s certainly an opening.

But considering both the extremeness of its content and the reality of how teens watch TV, it’s worth asking whether teens are even Euphoria’s real audience—and if not, who will be. Today’s youth are conditioned to get their entertainment from online outlets like YouTube or Netflix; services like HBO Now or Go are for their parents, the actual channel their grandparents. There’s an “if you build it, they will come” aspect to HBO’s commissioning a teen show, investing the resources to attract a new generation of viewers. Still, even the kind of budget that clears a Beyoncé musical cue for the pilot may not be enough to surmount decades of branding and systemic shifts in media diets.

Euphoria’s true target demographic is likely millennials, now in their 20s and 30s—young enough not to be put off by a dick montage or animated One Direction slashfic, but old enough to be curious what kids these days are up to. Never mind that the answer, in real life, is a whole lot less than their elders, sexwise; like Skins, Euphoria takes place in an alternate universe where everyone over the age of 14 is fluent in the taxonomy of dick pics, which Rue helpfully lays out for us in a fantasy sequence. On the other hand, the more mature Euphoria’s viewers, the less susceptible they might be to the illicit thrill of drugs and hookups—or willing to forgive the show’s many contradictions.

In Euphoria, as in Assassination Nation, Levinson’s problem is less insensitivity than inconsistency. He wants to both take teenagers seriously and fetishize their audacity, explore their nuances and satirize their stereotypes. Rue, our gateway into its world, has a full-blown drug addiction, a problem that’s treated with admirable seriousness. (Levinson himself struggled with excessive substance use in his teenage years.) An Inception-like scene where the room starts spinning mid-trip is fun, but Euphoria is careful to show the blow-out fights and near-death experiences that bookend it. And yet the same story that asks us to see Rue as a young woman in pain also uses a child drug dealer holding court inside the coolers of a convenience store as a casual visual gag. If she deserves our sympathy, why doesn’t he?

Euphoria often finds itself marooned in this awkward space between Freaks and Geeks and Heathers. Rue’s newly acquired best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), happens to be trans; her gender is treated as neither an afterthought nor a lesson plan for others to study. Both Zendaya and Schafer deliver excellent performances, combining charisma with vulnerability to create convincing teen renegades—these kids are strong-willed outliers, not movie stars masquerading as losers. But a dalliance with an older man feels ripped out of a masturbatory fantasy, as does another subplot where a plus-size character experiments with online sex work. There’s a fine line between affording teens agency and acknowledging they’re literal children, and it’s one Euphoria doesn’t put itself in the best position to walk.

Nevertheless, Euphoria is the kind of show that defines success by the volume of the response, not its tone. However measured one strives to be, pointing out its flaws gives the feeling of producing an intended result. After all, the point of lashing out is to get a rise out of the audience, for both the characters of Euphoria and the network betting big on it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.