Game of Thrones might be over now, but there are a number of reasons to keep your HBO subscription this summer. One of them is the new series Euphoria, a boundary-pushing, coming-of-age story capturing the lives of today's teens as they navigate the complicated world of sex, drugs, friendship, peer pressure, and more in the social media age. Starring former Disney Channel star Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who shines in a truly revelatory and raw performance as the 17-year-old drug addicted Rue, the show is a compelling and unique look at the teen experience today.
Based on an Israeli series, the show was created and written by Sam Levinson, son of Oscar winner Barry Levinson. When writing the first season, of which he directs five episodes, Levinson pulled directly from his own life experiences.
"A lot of this stuff is very true. I was a drug addict for many years, and I had a lot of anxiety and I really struggled with depression [like Rue]," Levinson said following a screening of the premiere at the ATX Television Festival on Thursday evening. "Even though I got clean at 19, I still struggle with all the kinds of anxiety, depression, all those things that first led me to want to quiet stuff out in my own head."
The show, which picks up in Rue's first days after being released from rehab prior to the start of her junior year of high school, walks a very fine line, carefully depicting the rawness of addiction. But while the show makes a purpose not to glamorize drug use, it doesn't ignore the allure either. "If we're pulling our punches and we're not showing the relief that drugs can bring, it starts to lose its impact because drugs can — drugs are not the solution, but they can feel like it at times, and that's what makes them so destructive," said Levinson.
"It's something that we're really mindful of," he continued. "There's a lot of conversation about it internally, and it's stuff we talked about with HBO. We want this to really feel like ... when you're in these scenes and you're watching these young people who are maybe making mistakes, or definitely making mistakes, you want to feel the helplessness."
"A lot of these stories are so specific," added Zendaya. "That's when I have to rely on Sam, who is our leader and our director but someone I have to confide in. I have to talk about things that are triggering and tough to talk about, but he has been so wonderful and open with me. ... We have the rawest conversation we possibly can."
Rue's drug addiction is just one piece of Euphoria's larger puzzle though. Trans actress Hunter Schafer plays Jules Vaughn, a young trans woman who moved to town over the summer. Like Rue, she is searching for who she is after a past filled with personal struggles. Although the show doesn't shine as much of a spotlight on Jules in the pilot as in later episodes, the premiere follows her as she ventures to a seedy motel to have sex with an older married man, played by Eric Dane, whose character Cal is a far cry from McSteamy of Grey's Anatomy.
"I think Jules has sort of come to town with this sort of routine already built, where I think she sort of relies on these toxic, messy meet-ups with men in order to feel some sense of affirmation," said Schafer of her character. "Obviously, [the sex] didn't look like very fun for her, but I think it's something deeper than that. It's deep-rooted and almost similar to an addiction in some ways."
"Also, Jules is tough as hell, and I think somewhat masochistic," she continued, "but she's really strong and she puts herself through this stuff and then she's able to turn it around and move forward."
This idea of not only surviving, but finding ways to thrive despite all these hardships facing today's youth is key to Euphoria's ultimately optimistic message. "I think all young people feel this way, or maybe people in general feel this way, of feeling lost. There's just so much sh-- [in life] that you just feel like it's too much sh-- and it's helpless. Like, why do I even try?" said Zendaya. "There's that feeling, but then there's moments of hope and there's moments of beauty within those things. I think that's what the show does so well: It explores the dark but there's hints and moments of light and hope and you see it and you want to hold onto it. And then it's gone. Then you find it again. Then it's gone. That's how life works."
"I think the takeaway is to be empathic, be compassionate," said Levinson. "Be sensitive to others, I think that's what it's ultimately about. ... Find a way to create your own meaning in this world. Create your own family. Find those that you love and hang on to them."
Euphoria premieres Sunday, June 16 10/9c on HBO.