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Euphoria (Zendaya) - First episode review


Review for Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THERE’S a fine line between provocative and exploitative, shocking and sensationalist… Euphoria tip-toes it but ends up on the right side of both (at least in terms of its first episode).

Based on an Israeli series that first aired in 2012, Euphoria also draws heavily on lead writer Sam Levinson’s own experiences of teenage drug addiction, and is being described as a teenage drama that’s not for teens. It tackles a wealth of hot button topics from gender identity to toxic masculinity via rape, sugar daddies, porn and addiction. And it goes for gritty realism, seldom -if ever – shying away from the explicit or unpleasant.

Euphoria has already been greeted with equal parts outrage and critical acclaim in the US, while several UK journalists have been moved to say that it makes previously controversy baiting shows such as Skins look positively Victorian.

The debate surrounding it would be fairly academic, though, if Euphoria’s sole reason to exist was to shock its way to ratings success. Plenty of shows have tried to do the same thing, with varying degrees of success.

But Euphoria seems to want to highlight a moment in time by ruffling feathers in a bid to understand it. Why are certain teens so disaffected, so inclined towards self-destruction when, arguably, in the eyes of an older generation they’ve never had it so good? No war. Fancy houses (every teen comedy or drama comes with its own swimming pool). The world at their fingertips, literally in the case of the Internet and social media; or via the innumerable holiday opportunities afforded to them.

But are we – or they – being sold a rose tinted reality? As Euphoria’s leading lady Zendaya (who plays the 17-year-old Rue) observes in the show’s opening moments, hers is a generation born in the shadow of 9/11, living under the threat of impending environmental catastrophe. The world is arguably more dangerous – and certainly unstable – than its ever been. And teenagers are more exposed.

The Internet, for all of its pros, offers refuge to deviants. Sex is everywhere… not so much the loving kind, more the promiscuous, or worse. As the show’s teenagers suggest, everyone watches porn. So, when that porn involves the sustained degradation of women, why shouldn’t young bucks automatically assume that their girls will be submissive and liking it rough?

Then there’s the ‘shaming’ culture – fat shaming, virgin shaming, sex shaming. If you’re in any way vulnerable or uncertain, your insecurities are fair game for trolls.

And then there’s pressure – the pressure of making the right choices and sometimes the wrong ones, of measuring up to your ‘peers’, or succeeding when you’re expected to. Even the pressure of appearances, of image.

Euphoria shines a light on all of this. It does so by sticking it in your face and it does so subliminally. Take its soundtrack choices. Some reflect mood but others serve to highlight the problem, with certain song selections fuelled by negativity, especially towards women. It empowers the alpha culture, heightens that toxic masculinity. If you choose to surround yourself in the things that harm and degrade, there’s no escaping it. The negativity consumes.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, Euphoria is exposing the cold, hard truth about certain aspects of our culture and, in a way, our complicity in shaping the generation it showcases into what it is. Whether subconsciously or not, we’ve all allowed certain things or trends to grow unchallenged.

Rue even says as much, declaring early on: “I know it may all seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up.”

The Internet has become what it has become because it was allowed to do so relatively unchecked. Sexual attitudes are the same. Ditto discrimination, sexual or otherwise.

And yet, ironically, one of the striking things about the first episode of Euphoria is that it doesn’t look to point fingers in obvious ways. Not always, at least. Rue’s mum seems ordinary. She’s just doing her best, given that her dad has long since passed (a hint at what may cause some of Rue’s emotional problems, aside from being diagnosed with ADD, general anxiety disorder and possible bipolar disorder).

Another character, Jules (Hunter Schafer), self-harms and meets older men (as evidenced by Eric Dane’s married father) for sex. She is both manipulator and manipulated. And yet, from the small insight we’ve been given into her own dad, he seems caring enough.

But then perhaps the larger problem is a lack of understanding. In Rue’s case, her multiple diagnoses are complex and bewildering… not just for Rue, but for anyone living with her. Her struggles to be understood – let alone understand herself – will resonate with anyone who has experience of living under the autism spectrum. And the statistics concerning low self-esteem, anxiety and their proximity to addiction and bad choices are out there for anyone to research.

Euphoria cleverly invites you to open such debates. It’s not a show that’s necessarily out there to be enjoyed. Indeed, I hope it isn’t. There is a lot to unsettle, whether viewing through the eyes of a parent or a teen.

The humiliation of certain characters in the first episode was painful, often excruciating. The toxic masculinity on display was horrific, both from good-looking but volatile jock Nate or his father (played by Dane), in what proved to be a neat last act twist. And yet, we know it happens.

How our relationships and sympathies/empathies develop with these characters remains to be seen. For sure, there’s plenty more horror to come, as well as explicitness. But there’s a hope that we can get to like at least some of the characters… if not just to be moved by them and their various plights, but to understand them. And if that proves to be the case, then Euphoria‘s power to possibly change a culture and the attitudes associated with it, could be immeasurable.

So far, so [unpleasantly] gripping.