In case you hadn't heard, Euphoria, the HBO series starring Zendaya, shows people (mostly teens) doing lots of drugs. And having lots of sex. There's a narcotics pusher not old enough to drive and, as giddy writers have been saying, one scene alone with something like 30 dicks. Euphoria is wild, and, part of its wild vision involves using trippy visual effects to convey how warped and impaired the universe Sam Levinson created is. Euphoria contains some of the most shocking scenes on television since that first season of American Gods. Independent of all that though, the series very early on demands viewers decide whether or not it can tell a clear, compelling story in a solid fashion. That answer is yes. For the most part.
An adaptation of an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria begins from the perspective of Rue (Zendaya), a high school junior who's jaded, drugged out, and just home from rehab after an overdose. There's a lot to unpack at the very outset; in a breathy, dark timbre, Rue explains that she was born into tragedy and doesn't know how to feel (I'm paraphrasing) via voice-over that goes on too long. Screenwriting sages once maintained that voice-over gives lazy storytellers an easy escape from the difficult road of crafting story and character, and warn that most of the time, writers employ voice-over inconsistently -- abandoning the hack after they've established information that should've come through dialogue and plot.
But Euphoria clearly has no commitment to rules, and in the first four episodes shown to critics, it confidently tells a bold, irresistible story on its own terms. Once the voice-over dissipates a bit, we discover that Rue is an absolute terror to her single mother and sister (a fabulous Storm Reid), and has no intentions of staying clean as she swallows, snorts, and smokes whatever she can procure. Zendaya makes Rue simultaneously loathsome and empathetic, although it's sometimes hard to tell whether this is truly fantastic acting or just playing against type since, as a junkie, Zendaya spends a lot of time on the same notes: dazed, sleepy, hysterical, or out of sorts. She's good, but what makes Euphoria grossly entertaining is the full cast, its interwoven stories, and the stunning visuals projected on the screen when substances alter their minds.
Looking to reintegrate herself back into her world, Rue bumbles along her merry way to introduce us to a world of other teen misfits: Fez (newcomer Angus Cloud), a sorta friend and drug dealer; Lexi (Maude Apatow), Rue's childhood best friend; It girl Maddie (Alexa Demie); Nate (Jacob Elordi), the tortured white alpha male jock; Kat, wonderfully played by Instagram star turned actor Barbie Ferreira; and Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl who's new to the school and befriends Rue. They're all intertwined in ways that get more intense, more funny, more dramatic, and more fascinating as the series progresses. They navigate sex and getting high and hanging out as if parents and authority in general are inside jokes to laugh at. Without giving too much away, Rue and Jules begin a tender, honest relationship; Jules and Nate become enmeshed in a thrilling, somewhat terrifying storyline; and Kat begins to blossom from mousey, insecure wallflower into a sex-positive woman with agency and maybe too much autonomy. Lusciously shot, Euphoria gets more and more jaw-dropping and gorgeous as it goes on, with an accompanying lit soundtrack (do the kids still say lit?) no doubt influenced by Drake, one of Euphoria's executive producers.
For all its clutch-the-pearls content and narrative twists, Euphoria tracks its characters' coming-of-age with honesty. Schafer, Ferreira, and Zendaya turn in some intoxicating performances, but the show's greatest strength lies in the ways it captures the moods of an age group that's gone numb after seeing catastrophes every day and dick pics function as courtship. Euphoria is shocking, but perhaps it shouldn't be. It depicts a generation that's grown up with the entire world at its fingertips -- a generation that can not only see porn before they're supposed to but create it and send it too. They've watched as adults fumbled the environment, government, religion, and pretty much everything that's supposed to provide structure and guidance. Rue's chemically enhanced nihilism and her friends' awful choices are the natural byproduct of a society that's lost control. They're all trying to feel something, and as upsetting as it is to watch, it's undeniably beautiful too.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Euphoria premieres Sunday, June 16 at 10/9c on HBO.