There's nothing new about lurid portrayals of teenagers.
Consumers of western TV and cinema love to gawk at the depravity of youth as portrayed by 25-year-olds with startling facial symmetry. Networks like the CW have found success from this formula, pumping out substanceless but highly watchable shows like Riverdale, Gossip Girl, and 90210 to the delight of binge-watchers everywhere. But every now and then, perhaps once in a generation, a depiction of teens comes along in the form of a gripping, hyper-realistic, and poetic meditation on what it means to be coming-of-age in the modern world.
As The Atlantic puts it, "The 1980s had Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, a coolly disaffected portrait of life in Los Angeles that featured heroin, rape, snuff films, and a 12-year-old sex slave. The '90s had Kids, Harmony Korine's bleakly disaffected portrayal of teenage skater kids sharing drugs and HIV. The 2000s had Skins, Jamie Brittain's entertainingly disaffected British import about pill-popping, bed-hopping high schoolers." Now, Gen Zers have HBO's Euphoria—in its best moments.
Former Disney Channel mainstay Zendaya fittingly stars in the neon-lit teenage drama about high-schoolers facing a world ruled by unprecedented amounts of technology, learning disabilities, psychiatric disorders, synthetic drugs, and identity politics. For all the ways the show can be heavy-handed in dealing with these subjects, Zendaya's performance as Rue, the show's primary protagonist, is brilliant and subtle. Rue's childhood history of mental illness and learning disabilities have left her marooned in her teens without a firm sense of identity, resulting in an ongoing battle with drug addiction. She deftly switches between mania and depression, adding layers of truth to the tired trope of the moody teenager. The show excels most when it gives Rue the reigns and breaks the fourth wall, allowing viewers into Rue's often wryly funny, though chaotic, inner world. For example, we follow Rue through the portal of her mind into an old timey slideshow presentation on dick pics; later, we see her in a film noir of her own devising as she works to unpack a town mystery. Rue's plotline and the creative, stylized filming techniques capturing it could make for an excellent show by themselves. Unfortunately, these high points are often overshadowed by the chaotic melodrama of the rest of the series.
If you take Euphoria as testimony, modern teenagers live in a world so fraught with danger that parents would be wise to keep their kids locked in their bedrooms until they leave for college. In fact, many moments of the show feel lik experiments in boundary-pushing—but not in the productively unsettling or realistic way Harmony Korine portrayed adolescent life in Kids, for example. Euphoria is like the deranged offspring of The L Word, a health class video about STD's, and a '70's porno. In the first episode alone, the cast of characters deals with everything from statutory rape to violence against trans people, to addiction, to familial rifts, to revenge porn. None of it is subtle, with literal montages of penises appearing more than once in just the first few episodes, for no other reason than because, well, it's HBO and they can get away with it.
Jules (Hunter Shafer) and Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane)HBO
Essentially, much like its protagonist, Euphoria suffers from an identity crisis. It portrays a generation of young people beholden to the often cruel consequences of smartphones and social media (admittedly an accurate and jarring depiction). But at other times, it seems to utterly misunderstand the average teen's life in 2019. Euphoria paints a picture of a generation that parties hard, has constant sex, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and is relatively unsupervised by parents. In reality, American teenagers are actually having less sex than ever before and partying even less. Obviously, a show about teenagers sitting in their respective bedrooms scrolling through Instagram would be much less interesting than the racy affair that is Euphoria, but surely there's a way to portray the technology-induced isolation of the modern teen in a way that rings true and holds the audience's interest.
To be fair, the show does touch briefly on these truths, memorably portraying Rue watching 22 hours of reality TV on her laptop while in the midst of a depressive episode. But she also moves in and out of dimly lit parties as if they're happening on every block of her small town, and she easily accesses every drug from Fentanyl to Ketamine. Yes,today's teens do use drugs and have sex, but that's not necessarily what defines their generation. So often times the show's racier and more dramatic narratives feel purposeless in Euphoria, as if they were inserted merely for shock factor.
For example, things get even murkier when Kat—a Tumblr fanfiction writer who struggles with body image issues—starts a secret life as a cam girl, financially dominating middle-aged men over video chat. The show positions this storyline in a way that almost suggests an underage girl showing her body to strange men on the Internet is empowering. But it doesn't commit to this controversial stance, offering confused undertones reminiscent of parental PSAs ("It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" or more accurately, "It's 10 p.m. your kid is in their bedroom on the internet, do you know what they're doing?"). Eventually, Kat seems to find salvation through the tired "knight in shining armor" trope when she finds a stereotypical nice guy who "likes her for her." Because of the show's refusal to commit to a view on Kat's behavior, the storyline seems to exist merely as a gratuitously shocking statement on the danger (or possibly freedom?) the Internet offers teens.
Kat (Barbie Ferreira)
Then there's the soap opera-esque storyline of Nate and his father, a prominent businessman in the town who has a penchant for seducing young teens off gay dating apps. After discovering his secret, Nate, a seemingly sociopathic jock, tries to anonymously befriend and seduce Jules, one of his father's conquests who's a transgender woman and Rue's best friend. Soon, Jules, Nate, and his girlfriend Maddy (who he physically abuses, because, ya know, there wasn't enough drama going on already) are embroiled in a convoluted plot of blackmail, ambiguous sexuality, and mob-movie style violence.
While it's impossible to overstate the magnetic talent of Hunter Shafer (Jules), it's unfortunate that the absurd drama of Nate's storyline tends to overshadow the blossoming of Rue and Jules' relationship. The show is successful and semi-revolutionary in the way it refuses to deal in identitarian labels, allowing Rue and Jules' intimate feelings for each other to capture the viewer's attention without ever defining what exactly those feelings mean—or if they have to mean anything at all.
But still, Euphoria doesn't capture the specific pitfalls and salvations that this technological age of cynicism, sexual and gender fluidity, and psychiatric disorders poses for teens. While it's perhaps the closest thing Gen Z has to a landmark portrayal of kids raised on 9/11 footage and video games, one can't help but wish the show's creators hadn't succumbed to the temptation of dealing in quite so much excess. Storytelling takes a backseat to gratuitous nudity, sexuality, and overblown soap opera-esque storylines, creating a show that's not sure what it's trying to say, but knows it wants to be shocking. All the parts are there for Euphoria to be made into something truly revolutionary. For now, all we can do is hope Season 2 brings more story and less spectacle.