How did Euphoria become the most loved and hated show on TV?

The HBO teen drama’s second season is either a glorious mess or an excessive fantasy of high school. Either way, it’s a record-breaking hit

If you were anywhere near social media this past Sunday night, you probably at least glimpsed the divisive mess that was the second season finale of Euphoria, HBO’s technicolor, gleefully excessive soap on the outsized trials and tribulations of suburban California teens. After a buzzy and acclaimed but modestly watched debut in 2019, the show’s second season has blown up: HBO announced Tuesday that Euphoria, with help from its new streaming home on HBO Max, is now its second most watched show since 2004. It averaged 16.3 million viewers an episode this season, behind only OG HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones, which drew an average of 44.2 million viewers during its final season in 2019.

But perhaps more impressive, and telling, than its 2022 viewing stats is Euphoria’s digital footprint. According to Twitter, the drama is the most tweeted-about show of the (still young) decade, with 34m tweets in the US alone. This is by design: Euphoria, adapted by Sam Levinson from the Israeli show of the same name, is audacious in style, almost pugnaciously provocative in substance, with imitable peacocking fashion and easily memeable cutaways. In other words, catnip for the online crowd.

Its buzziness is helped rather than hindered by a polarizing and, for many, narratively disappointing season that sidelined beloved characters, dropped plot lines, prioritized elaborate and visually ornate tangents over character development, doubled down on the drug abuse, dialed up the graphic violence, and went so far up its own ass as to have a character stage a Broadway-budget play about the show for its final two episodes. Call it disastrous, sublime, exhausting, narcissistic, magnetic or all of the above – no show aims for and captures the online discourse right now better than Euphoria. How did it become a social media lightning rod?

Euphoria is a TV show of and for the internet – appealing to our instinct to be included and our evergreen fascination with high school, stoking a range of reactions from outrage to appreciation (or often both), offering looks and plenty of avenues for takes. Watching the second season finale – in which Lexi’s (Maude Apatow) tell-all play devolved into a catfight, beloved drug dealer Fezco’s (Angus Cloud) house went down in a hail of police gunfire, and cast member Dominic Fike sang an entire original song – felt like witnessing the life cycle of a Twitter Event. You get the dopamine hits of beautiful images and caps-locked emotion, swirled with wild tonal shifts, packaged with such maximalism and gratuity as to demand a reaction, and emerge wired by the chaos and worn out by the whole cycle. (Fike, at least, was a good sport about this – “The internet remains undefeated. I am humbled,” he posted on Instagram stories along with some memes and tweets mocking his song.)

Barbie Ferreira, Alexa Demie and Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria.
Barbie Ferreira, Alexa Demie and Sydney Sweeney. Photograph: HBO/Warner Media

I’ll admit that I fall on the negative pole of the Euphoria debate. Midway through the season, I wrote that the show’s lurid style, lack of character development and general chaos had become both exhausting and boring; I found the finale to be a gratuitous trainwreck, save for a few quiet moments with genuine star Zendaya as (tidily recovered!) drug addict Rue. But I, too, enjoy submerging in the current swirl of reactions, reactions to the reactions, and gossip around Euphoria. (So, apparently, do some of the cast – “it’s fascinating,” said Sydney Sweeney of her character’s highly memeable bathtub moment. “It’s a beautiful thing when you have a character that so many people are able to relate to.”) The show has spawned a universe of memes – the Super Bowl as Maddy v Cassie, actor Alexa Demie’s mysterious age – and navel-gazy but immersive Twitter beef. (See: Tony-winning playwright Jeremy O Harris, a producer on the show and close friend of Levinson’s, sparring with critics over his tweet that Euphoria was “made for ppl with an intellect for CINEMA and not the impatience of TELEVISION” and likening it to Dickens).

Dickens it is not, but Euphoria does have the evergreen appeal of the unrealistic teen soap, operating in the lane of the original Gossip Girl, Degrassi, Skins, Home and Away, One Tree Hill and The OC – shows depicting high schoolers played by hot twentysomething actors on an inherently ridiculous merry-go-round of drama. Euphoria shares many of the same tropes – a blonde v brunette love triangle, absent parents, etc – dressed up with enough expensive cinematography, fine acting, HBO budget and Dare-invoking material to merit serious critical discussion (and recaps on TikTok). Though it is HBO’s youngest-skewing show, Euphoria is best understood as a millennial’s revisionist fantasy of their own proto-social media high school days, if the current digital hellscape was our teenage playground. (Levinson, the creator who wrote and directed every episode this season, is 37.) As Delia Cai recently argued in Vanity Fair, Euphoria inflames the millennial generation’s already intense fascination with high school, particularly as a framework for articulating life online – what else is Twitter if not a more exposed and cutthroat high-school cafeteria?

Gossip being fundamental to both, intrigue has swirled in the past couple months around alleged behind-the-scenes drama, with much of the frustration for the season’s shortcomings directed at Levinson, the creator whom fans love to hate. Videos tagged #SamLevinson have been viewed nearly 40m times on TikTok, according to the New York Times – nearly unheard of for an off-screen writer/director, and an unusual way to view a television show, which is usually the result of collaborative creative entropy. (Euphoria, unusually for a show of its size, has no writers’ room.)

Sam Levinson and Zendaya.
Sam Levinson and Zendaya. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for HBO

Rumors have circulated for months – on both anonymous gossip accounts such as Deuxmoi, AKA the Gossip Girl of the real world, and mainstream outlets – that tension between Levinson and Barbie Ferreira led to the reduction of fan-favorite Kat, the only plus-sized main character. There’s also the inexplicable and confusing absence of Algee Smith’s Christopher McKay, the show’s only black male teen, who appeared for only a brief scene in the first episode despite being a significant focus (and victim of traumatic, lavishly filmed fraternity hazing) in the first season.

Interviews with numerous cast members, from Sweeney to guest actor Minka Kelly to Javon Walton, who plays Ashtray, have pointed to both the dominance of Levinson’s vision, his instincts for gratuity and the ad hoc fluidity of his process. Kelly and Sweeney said Levinson took their requests to not appear topless in scenes he scripted as such, igniting another round of controversy; some have pointed out (fairly, I would say) that Sweeney’s Cassie is still, more than any other character, frequently naked on the show, and that an actor having to push back repeatedly on nudity in a show about teenagers is … weird. It does not lessen Sweeney’s agency as an actor, and a season MVP at that, to note that several scenes featuring Cassie in distress – in an underboob bikini while housing a bottle of champagne, strutting in slo-mo down the aisle of Lexi’s play, in bed with a very toxic Nate (Jacob Elordi) – hinge on a fascination with, if not exploitation of, her body.

The specter of Levinson’s marionette strings, the aura of the auteur, does color one’s view of the show – I would be more willing to forgive its mess, its instinct for nudity and its fixation with Rue and Cassie’s suffering if I knew it was the result of some bonkers writing room, not the brain of one person. It is easy to conflate Euphoria with Levinson, to put intense feelings with the former on to the latter, and for said frustration to loop back into its own online joke. As Vulture writer Iana Murray put it in a recent recap, Levinson’s “writing or his provocations” are “not only a frequent target of criticism but a bona fide meme at this point”.

Hate-watching, spectacle rubbernecking, chaos enjoyment is not unique to Euphoria (see: The Morning Show season two), but the second season has achieved an almost high art of ambivalence, a spectacle in which intensity of style (and provocation) begets intensity of reaction. Or, in the words of one TikTok commenter: “I am so aggravated by this show and I will watch absolutely every episode.”

Maybe Euphoria’s third season, which will probably not air until the unfathomable year of 2024, will course correct, put some guardrails on the chaos, or hire more writers. To quote the new Euphoria song by Zendaya and Labrinth, I’m Tired. Or maybe not – the second season’s shock and shimmer may have generated as many angry tweets as awed ones, but online talk is not cheap. And teen nostalgia knows that feeling anything, everything, is better than nothing at all.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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