‘Euphoria’ Season 1 Review: HBO and A24 Deliver a Magnificent, Thrilling Portrait of Teenage Dysphoria

It took less than a minute for me to realize I loved Euphoria. In a grandiose opening that proves to be more than befitting of the hours that follow, we see the birth of lead character Rue (Zendaya) followed immediately by a smash cut to Flight 175 hitting the South Tower. Narration from Rue reveals that she was born three days after 9/11, before launching into a five-minute dissection of the mindless American suburbia that would lead to her present disaffected 17-year-old self becoming a drug addict. It’s a truly exhilarating opening montage, introducing the viewer to the dizzyingly frenetic editing style that will define much of the show, while also making its MO clear: this is a story about Generation Z, and about taking an honest approach to these individuals that have never previously been represented in this way before.

Naturally, with a show seeking to be so generation-defining, your mileage will vary, and it’s been fascinating to see the (often generational) divide between fans and critics of the show. If there were any worries about HBO losing relevancy after the end of Game of Thrones they have surely been assuaged by the response to Euphoria, which has drawn equal amounts of adoration and ire, the latter often directed at its explicit nature and sense of nihilism. As someone on the older end of Gen-Z, I fall more in line with the former – from its opening minutes, I was totally enraptured with Euphoria‘s whirlwind storytelling, stunning craft, and keen devotion to fully realizing the complicated inner and outer lives of today’s teenagers.

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Hunter Schaefer and Zendaya in ‘Euphoria’ © HBO 2019

There’s a lot of ground to cover when unraveling a world as unexplored and as complicated as this, but showrunner Sam Levinson navigates it with surprising skill. Rue’s story deftly walks the tightrope of delivering a nuanced take on teenage drug addiction that doesn’t glamorize the phenomenon but shows the often brutal realities without ever losing sight of why those realities may seem appealing to this character. It’s grounded in a remarkable central performance from Zendaya, breaking free from her Disney Channel past in an astonishingly well-realized turn that never hits a false note, whether she’s delivering a lecture about the art of taking dick pics or having a truly heartbreaking meltdown when her dealer refuses to sell her any more drugs. She covers the whole gamut here, and it establishes her as one of today’s finest young talents.

One of the strongest elements of the show is her relationship with Jules (Hunter Schaefer), the enchanting new girl in town who quickly becomes best friends with Rue. Schaefer is no doubt the breakthrough performance of the season, proving to be a magnetic screen presence that’s bolstered by how genuinely exciting it is to see representation like this, as her presence here feels like a truly progressive step forward for trans representation in mainstream American media.

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Hunter Schaefer in ‘Euphoria’ © HBO 2019

While drug addiction and trans representations alone are important enough topics for a show to be based entirely around, Euphoria has so much else on its mind, including weight and body image, technology and digital landscapes, abusive relationships, difficult and overbearing parents, toxic ideals of masculinity and so on. Nothing feels like its included just for lip-service, all of these areas are realized with sensitivity and honesty that’s true to the characters they relate to. Euphoria maintains a constant feeling that it understands young people; it nails a specific brand of nihilism and aimlessness that goes beyond weightless angst and comes from a real place of confusion and frustration, and it’s this feeling that keeps the show compelling when the plotlines themselves may grow a bit too heightened or ludicrous.

Take for instance the story of Nate (Jacob Elordi), Euphoria’s big bad jock character. Elordi is an infinitely compelling presence, bringing to life the typical overly masculine football player with a disaffected apathy that leans closer to Patrick Bateman than it does your average high school student. A breakdown scene he has in the finale is one of the more physically visceral moments of the whole show, but Euphoria frequently feels like it loses sight of reality when Nate is involved, whether it be due to his psychopathic scheming and ability to manipulate essentially anyone he wants, or due to the presence of his father, whose whole “pillar of the community with a dark hidden secret” schtick feels a little too soapy for the show surrounding it.

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Jacob Elordi in ‘Euphoria’ © HBO 2019

It’s difficult to be too annoyed at a show so brazen and go-for-broke ambitious, especially in its technical elements. Almost every episode opens with an extended segment delving into the backstory of a supporting character through montages so beautifully cut and thrillingly realized that they’d make Eisenstein proud. The camera frequently adopts a Scorsese-like frenetic coked-out energy, whipping and flying through scenes with reckless abandon in a truly exhilarating manner. Moreso than anything else on air right now Euphoria had me rewinding moments just to watch specific instances of camerawork or cutting or the absolute perfect needle drop (of which there are several) again.

Euphoria may be too flashy for some but it feels incredibly appropriate for a show about the generation often nicknamed zoomers, meeting their frantic pace and doing it with a degree of spectacle that surpasses even the highest budgeted of TV shows. The incredible craftsmanship alone is reason enough to invest the time in this show, but when combined with its thorny, brutally honest subject matter and astonishing young performances, it elevates Euphoria to a force to be reckoned with; a genuinely thrilling odyssey of generational angst that’s realized with such power and bravado that it doesn’t quite resemble anything else on TV.

★★★★½

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