Euphoria review: Zendaya-led HBO drama is subversive when not obsessed with magnifying sexual violence

Manik Sharma

Jul 03, 2019 15:54:09 IST

In the second episode of the new HBO series Euphoria, the narrator Rue (Zendaya) philosophises ‘the weird thing about the internet…ten people can feel like the whole world’. Euphoria, HBO’s first ever teen drama is situated somewhere between the make-believe landscapes of the web and the sophisticated, intersectional lives of those who willingly camp under its dome. Euphoria is narrated by Rue, a 17-year-old addict just out of rehab who filters what she can of people around her, unreliably narrating events that she can’t entirely be trusted to know the means and ends of; which is why most of Euphoria is trippy, hallucinatory and extremely stylish. This is a self-admittedly dark series, peppered with problems like teenage anxiety, toxic masculinity, porn, sex and drugs. Strangely, it is all very watchable, still.

 Euphoria review: Zendaya-led HBO drama is subversive when not obsessed with magnifying sexual violence

Zendaya as a teenage drug addict in Euphoria. Image via Twitter/@lMMUN1TY

Euphoria isn’t as beamy as Netflix’s Riverdale nor is it as driven as Netflix’s most controversial series 13 Reasons Why or as cuddly as Sex Education. The angst-ridden teenage drama is now a real estate winner on most streaming platforms but for HBO, a network driven by characters this is a first of sorts. Firstly, because Euphoria doesn’t propel any one person. Though Rue narrates, she remains hidden for large parts of the show. There are interesting, though in certain terms clichéd characters, like the father-fearing masculine jock Nate (Jacob Elordi) and the self-harming masochist Jules (Hunter Schafer). Jules and Rue strike up an unlikely friendship after the former creeps everyone out at a party. Jules looks for dangerous sex often at the cost of depraving herself and her security. The thrills aren’t cheap, or at least, lightheaded in this show. In a sense, Euphoria transacts through true-crime tropes.

The series undoubtedly stretches some boundaries as nearly every sexual situation is derived functionally from violence. In a scene from the first episode, a school athlete almost chokes the woman he is making love to. “I thought you’d like it,” he says, confused. In another scene a group of men sit together bare-chested ogling pictures and graphic videos of women they’ve been with, without the slightest discomfort. Euphoria’s anxious teenagers are hyper-masculine, but unfortunately a lot of its women are created in the service of this masculinity as well. After a video of her having sex is leaked, Kat, a plus-size, introvert handles it with the calmness of someone who’d be difficult to find, no less imagine. In a scene from the second episode, he even blackmails the principal of the school for presumably fat shaming her. “Body terrorism”, she calls it, weirdly nonplussed about the publicity of her ‘first’ sexual encounter; an exaggeration too far even for a series that takes its trigger warnings seriously.

To point, Euphoria’s clichéd characters do not come in the way of its more tender moments. The series authoritatively critiques the instruments of teen love, a hammock confusedly tied at one end to the virtual world of dating apps, swipe-left-or-right paradigms and at the other to preemptive adolescence, the creeping sense that it takes something real to finally ground you. Loneliness and unstated grief abound in this world. Moments between Jules and Rue, offer at least a minimal view of the possibilities of something brighter. But Love needs a miracle to survive in Euphoria’s violently partitioned halves of drama and comedy that can at times seem indistinct. And here is perhaps the series’ greatest problem. Produced by the rapper Drake, Euphoria has a definitively beat-heavy soundtrack. Rue’s indifferent narration and the soundtrack’s obscuring effects alleviate tension, but they can also, at times get in the way.

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A still from Euphoria.

Euphoria has its problems, especially when its characters cannot step out of their templates. Templates we have already seen enough of. Sex isn’t necessarily sexy in the series, but its impartial framing of nudity feels perfunctory (hordes and hordes of penises). It is easily the most stylish teenage show, keeping in line with HBO’s high standards but it has a body fetish problem (hot teenagers) that it cannot, like films about psychopathic killers, shake. After Nate beats up another young man, he immediately looks at himself in the mirror as if turned on by his own image. Euphoria can turn into farce, largely due to its own obsessions rather than anything reality can teach it. Then there are the good bits, parts where Euphoria is melancholic, unsteady yet subversive. Rue’s addiction isn’t sensationalised but cut into pieces of horror and helplessness. Nate’s rigidness is, at times, well explained. “There was nothing he hated more than body hair,” Rue says when she explains why Nate took to a certain woman in school.

HBO’s Euphoria is a bit of a trip and it certainly doesn’t tell you where it’s going. It has already stirred up controversy with American parents and is likely to be apprehended on grounds not too dissimilar from 13 Reasons Why. But while it is easily more stylish, assuredly made and performed well by a cast of debutants (a casting choice justified by how unpredictable they act out) Euphoria stands out in moments when it isn’t obsessed with magnifying sexual violence to the point of becoming the show’s motto. It has enough going for it to say something significant about millennials as long as the tendency to shock and awe doesn’t get in the way.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 16:16:17 IST