Leading up to its Sunday night premiere, HBO’s new series Euphoria earned comparisons to Skins, the British cult-classic that followed a group of teens in Bristol, as they smoked, drank, popped pills, fucked, cried, and did it all over again, in aesthetically pleasing splendor, soundtracked to bloghaus hits. When teasers for Euphoria—a reboot of an Israeli program about a teen drug addict and her peers navigating adolescence in the age of sexting—made the rounds, there was an obvious connection to make.
The first four episodes available for review show a similar rhythm to Skins, focusing on one primary character per episode. But claims that Euphoria is simply Skins for Gen Z are reductive at best. Euphoria doesn’t wildly subvert the tropes that Skins—or, frankly, any other teen drama from My So-Called Life, to The O.C., to Riverdale—propped up. Teen excess and exploration, tortured golden boys, and It girls are the bread and butter of any teen series. But beyond making these themes 2019 compliant—the show’s 30-year-old creator, Sam Levinson (director of Assassination Nation) wrote the script based on his own experience with addiction and is certain that it’s updated enough—it’s clear that while Skins may have popularized the sleek and shamelessly raw teen series, the darkness of Euphoria makes Skins look like pure comedy.
Euphoria opens with Rue Bennet (Zendaya Coleman) narrating her birth. She was born three days after 9/11, and footage of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center plays on the hospital TV screen as Rue emerges from her mother’s womb. As President Bush gives a bravado-laden speech from the ruins of Ground Zero, Texas drawl heavy as ever, Rue starts crying. Somehow, this manages to come across as a funny wink instead of a heavy-handed slap, suggesting that Rue’s life has been plagued by chaos from the moment she drew her first breath. This is confirmed as viewers watch Rue as a child, diagnosed with anxiety, OCD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and a slew of other mental and mood disorders at an early age and is medicated to hell and back as a result. By 17, she’s an addict who’s self-medicating with medicine cabinet cocktails. Her dangerous dance with prescription pills causes her to overdose and her sister (Storm Reid) finds her asphyxiating on her own vomit. This leads to a summer stint of rehab, but Rue has no intentions on getting clean. To her mother and sister, she plays the part of a girl who’s ready to turn her life around. But in reality, Rue’s drug use ebbs and flows; and when it flows, so does the urine, which she begs for from friends in order to pass her mother’s impromptu drug tests.
Zendaya is a force in Euphoria, making a firm case that she’s more than a former Disney Channel star or a regular red carpet showstopper. Her voiceovers ooze a deliciously impish boredom as she thumbs through the private lives of her classmates. Her vulnerability—in love, and for substances—is nothing short of magnetic. She doesn’t play hot-but-sad-but-hot onscreen (which Skins was guilty of), and Rue’s addiction is neither endearing nor glamorous. There’s no Effy Stonem allure here. It’s raw, ugly, and pitiful. One of her most arresting scenes comes in Episode 3 when Rue is craving oblivion after a rough day. When her faithful (albeit begrudging) dealer Fez (Angus Cloud) refuses to give her drugs, Rue goes through an increasingly brittle series of emotions. She asks nicely, then she begs, then she pleads, then she turns nasty, and then nastier. Before breaking completely, she snarls at Fez through his locked door, “You’re a fucking dropout drug dealer with seven functioning fucking brain cells.” Suddenly, she whimpers, “You did this to me! You fucking ruined my life!” All the while, Rue is banging on his door, demanding that he let her in, until she’s breathless.
Zendaya isn’t the only standout in the young cast. There’s also Rue’s best friend, a trans girl named Jules (played by a trans woman, Hunter Schafer) who’s new in town. Despite a grim backstory that’s powerfully unraveled in Episode 4, Jules is a cheery delight, Rue’s sunshine on a cloudy day. Rue is still an addict with a penchant for pharmaceuticals, but Jules becomes something of a drug of her own, leaving Rue more vulnerable and confused than ever and questioning whether her affection for Jules extends beyond friendship. When Jules starts to fall for a guy she chats with on Grindr, Rue’s emotional dependency increases. It’s impossible not to root for them—romantically or otherwise—but as the series progresses, their every interaction is lined with tension, and you’re left waiting for something (everything) to fall to pieces.
The first half of the season also introduces Nate (Jacob Elordi), an aggro jock whose hyper-masculinity masks a clusterfuck of gay repression, and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), who goes from reluctant virgin, to revenge porn victim, to underage masked cam girl in the course of three episodes. Kat is a prolific smut fan-fiction writer on Tumblr, best known for “a 7,000-word fic largely credited with starting the Larry Stylinson conspiracy theory.” (For anyone who was either aware of Larry shippers at the height of One Direction’s fame, or anyone who read smut fic written by virginal writers who were overly invested in having their characters using saliva as lube, the moment is a hilariously real look into what nerdy teen girls really get up to.)
Euphoria effectively reeled me in, despite its flaws. The initial reactions to penises on the show were largely unfounded (flaccid locker room dicks and contextless dick pics elicited little more than a shrug from me, given the increase of dicks on television), but there are still some perhaps needlessly gratuitous scenes over the four episodes—instances of seemingly consensual but not enjoyable rough sex (one of which would be classified as statutory rape) and a bloody beating that’s difficult to watch even for someone with a strong stomach. As delightful as it was to hear Jules exclaim, “Bitch, this isn’t the ’80s. You need to catch a dick!” when Kat reveals she’s a virgin, it’s disheartening that the only known virgin on the show still gets shit for it.
The series sometimes becomes so enamored by its own lurid travails into darkness that it neglects to indulge in enough levity. There’s a good scene in which Jules implores Rue to positively critique a dick pic, which promptly segues into Rue leading a PSA-style slideshow about decoding dick pics: “Some people say that eyes are the windows to the soul,” Rue intones, wielding a teacher’s pointer stick while Jules dutifully clicks to the next slide before a room of bored students. “I disagree. I think it’s your dick, and how you fucking photograph it.” After Kat tells her new biology partner (and potential love interest) Ethan (Austin Abrams) that he has a mass shooter vibe, Ethan winces and jokingly says that his Reddit username is “IncelUprising.” This show has a sick sense of humor, and could use more of it.
After the pilot, Euphoria finds a steady pace, delicately peeling away the layers of its star teens. So much of the show comes down to secrecy, turning the idea of a young generation addicted to TMI on its head. The ubiquity of social media hasn’t made teens into open books, as countless, handwringing trend pieces about millennials imply. Euphoria suggests that, in fact, it’s made them darker.