When Euphoria first appeared on US television, some reviewers flinched at what they saw as its unrelenting bleakness. In its infancy, this hot new teen drama looked as if it were shocking simply for the sake of it, the TV equivalent of trying to wind your parents up by getting a tattoo, buying a weed vape and eloping with a roadie called Spud. Its drugs, booze and sex scenes screamed “OK boomer” before anyone thought to put that on a T-shirt. It told the story of 17-year-old Rue (played, in a masterful bit of casting, by former Disney star Zendaya), whose mental health issues led her into nihilistic drug addiction. The first episode saw her leaving a seemingly successful stint in rehab, following an accidental overdose, only to track down more mind-numbing substances as quickly as possible.
The series became a phenomenon, though not because it was showy but because it was excellent, gripping, and far more sensitive and subtle than it first let on. Over eight episodes, it paints a nuanced portrait of a group of friends and associates trying to get by while struggling with teen angst, 2019-style. Drugs have names that sound like questions on a chemistry test, social status is digitally tracked, and when it comes to sex, Euphoria reaches a zenith of grim. It depicts a generation who have never known a life offline, and its treatment of hook-up apps, webcams and revenge porn hover somewhere between matter-of-fact and gruesome. If teenagers really are having less sex than ever, Euphoria offers a convincing suggestion as to why. But its candour never slips into didacticism, and never falls into the teen-drama trap of using bad times as morality lessons.
The prevalence of mind-altering substances in suburbia lends the show one of its most appealing qualities. Soaked in visual flair, it is as aesthetically pleasing as its Instagram-friendly cast, with the lesser-known actors quickly becoming stars in their own right. It is fantastical and experimental, impressionistic even, since the characters being high allows for the world to be shown in a trippier light. It used flashbacks, collages and visions to elevate its simmering melodramas, whether a sensitive storyline about slut-shaming and double standards, or a house party turned violent thanks to a cocktail of alcohol, drama and hormones.
What worked just as well was the show’s ability to operate as a thriller, particularly when it came to the criminal machinations of Nate, who used girls around him as pawns in a terrible, self-serving game. In Nate, the show carved out a villain of toxic masculinity, a baddie formed in the image of his father’s sexual entitlement and his own self-loathing. His slow torture of Jules, a transgender teenager new to the neighbourhood (for whom being trans was barely the storyline) was near-unbearable to witness. Her unravelling was heartbreaking, not least for the wedge it drove between her and Rue, whose blossoming semi-romantic friendship gave the show a steady emotional core.
Ultimately, what made Euphoria such a blast of cool, fresh air was not its shock tactics, or its NSFW content, but its massive heart. The writer and director Sam Levinson has spoken about how much of Rue’s story drew from his own experiences of anxiety and addiction, and you can feel the authenticity. By the end of its eight thrilling episodes, it is difficult not to care deeply about the plights of these young people desperately trying to figure out who they are. When other shows – such as 13 Reasons Why – have aimed at similar topics of teenage isolation and the cruelty of peers they tend to veer off into clumsiness and exploitation. Euphoria stayed on track by playing it straight. For all of the characters’ “maturity” and hyper-verbose articulacy, it found its brilliance in staying open, warm and sweetly, unexpectedly, naive. There was nothing else like it this year.