Do you feel old watching "Euphoria"? Or not old enough?
With rap icon and Degrassi: The Next Generation actor Drake as executive producer and former Disney actress Zendaya as the star – HBO assembled some experienced talent for its first foray into the teen drama genre. Based on an Israeli miniseries and created by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation), son of director Barry Levinson – Euphoria tells the story of a group of high schoolers navigating lives that should worry any parent enough to consider homeschooling. The 8-episode premium cable series bursts at the seams with the three cornerstones of being a teen in 2019: sex, drugs, and social media. With an ensemble cast of 10-15 lead and recurring actors, Euphoria successfully interweaves each person’s narrative throughout the season, while focusing every episode on a particular character. For example, Euphoria’s pilot centers on the show’s self-proclaimed unreliable narrator and 17-year-old protagonist, Rue Bennett (played by Zendaya).
After spending a majority of the summer before her junior year in rehab, Rue returns home to the joy of her younger sister and worry of her widowed mother. “It was the end of summer. The week before school started. I had no intention of staying clean. And Jules had just moved to town,” proclaims her narration. Jules Vaughn, a transgender girl new to the suburbs, meets Kat in summer school and immediately leaves her mark on the community when she makes quite the scene at football star McKay’s end of summer party. Also at the party are recent exes, Nate Jacobs and Maddy Perez. Not since Game of Thrones’ insufferable King Joffrey has there been a young villain as reprehensible as Nate Jacobs. While trying to make each other jealous, the on-again off-again couple set off a chain of events that carries the season’s story arch sufficiently through its first eight episodes. Or as Rue puts it, “And then, the night got weird.”
Zendaya and Hunter Schafer attend the premiere of "Euphoria" during the ATX Television Festival at the Paramount Theatre - Gary Miller/Getty Images
Season one of Euphoria serves more as a character study than a narrative. Not aiming to do too much story-wise beyond high school issues like sex, addiction, and identity – the series spends the majority of its time delving deep into character back-stories and current mental states. As teenage members of Generation Z (aka post-Millennials), Euphoria authentically portrays a group of kids who only know life with technology at their fingertips. This is illustrated by the show’s frequent use of text-messaged dialogue. With the Internet a part of your life since birth, pivotal years through maturity can easily be warped. As shown through the character of Kat’s sexual awakening storyline, social media can either break you, or instill the change in life you’ve been seeking. While social media may serve more as an escape for older generations, for these Generation Z teens, it can affect their reality as much, if not more than life itself.
A major role the Internet and social media has played on this new youth is what we'll refer to as mental precocious puberty. Medically, precocious puberty is defined as when a child’s body starts to change into an adult’s body too early. Therefore, “mental” precocious puberty would be when a child’s brain is prematurely exposed to mature content, and starts to change into an adult’s brain too early. Rue and her early dependence to pharmaceutical drugs, Nate and his early exposure to graphic pornography, and Jules’ institutionalization and transitioning as a pre-teen all exemplify this post-traumatic form of early exposure. As a direct result, we now have a generation of teenagers acting ten years older than their actual age, without ten years' worth of real-life experiences that would help shape their world view and internal dialogue. “I know it all may seem sad. But guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up,” states Rue in the pilot episode. This is Euphoria – a world where children act like reckless adults, while the adults recklessly don’t act.
Rue shares toward the end of the season that she “had a therapist once who said that these states [of mental health] will wax and wane, which gave my mother relief because it meant that in the bad times, there would be good times. But it also gave her anxiety because it meant that in the good times there would be bad times. Granted, I didn’t realize until later what waxing and waning implied. That these feelings were constant and fixed and would never end for the rest of my life.”
Euphoria is an atypical coming-of-age story akin to the 1995 film, Kids. As you watch the characters grow, it’s not necessarily for their betterment. Just because a person is progressing down a path, doesn’t make it the right one. Life can be cruel. Good people die and bad people live. Euphoria effectively paints a numb world where many of today’s children are forced to navigate between a boring right and a sexy wrong. This is a world where drugs and sex are commonplace, technology is supreme, and mental health is medicated instead of ignored.
Like the characters of Euphoria, today’s young musicians and rappers have also grown up in this social media-dictated and pharmaceutical-sedated society. These new artists offer a fresh and relatable perspective that’s now represented and embraced within popular music. There’s no coincidence that today’s biggest songs are about anxiety, prescription pills, and social media clout. Whether you like it or not, it’s the new normal. So with Drake as an executive producer and teenagers its stars, music undoubtedly plays a pivotal role throughout the first season of Euphoria. Featuring songs by chart-topping artists (Beyoncé, Drake, Migos) and the next generation of hip-hop (Megan Thee Stallion, JID, Cupcakke) alike – Euphoria’s soundtrack orchestrates an eclectic balance of trap party anthems, EDM drug trips, and indie bedroom pop. But the true star behind the music of Euphoria is British singer, rapper, and producer, Labrinth. His melodramatic synth score adds texture to the show’s dark, yet glittery aesthetic and will be stuck in your head for days.
It’s too soon to say if Euphoria is connecting with the generation it’s depicting, but the ratings have been strong enough to earn an early second season renewal. But so far the show appears to speak on behalf of post-Millennials more than it speaks to them. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How many high school students do you know who watch HBO?
Looking ahead to the second, and potential future seasons of Euphoria, don’t be surprised to see minor characters from season one, like Lexi Howard (played by Maude Apatow), McKay’s younger twin brothers, and Gia Bennett (played by Storm Reid), take on larger roles. Along with focusing each episode on a specific character, developing minor roles into potential leads of the future is another direct influence from teen dramas of the past, specifically Skins.
Whether you were raised on Beverly Hills 90210, The O.C., or Gossip Girl – HBO’s Euphoria is the unrated version those shows could have never been. Although difficult to watch during moments of graphic violence and nudity, Euphoria introduces viewers to a world that should be shared, not shunned. Because no matter how fucked up they appear to be…the children are still our future.