Editor’s note: This review contains mild spoilers about the first four episodes of Euphoria.
Produced by the popular production company A24 and executive produced by Drake, HBO’s upcoming, provocative teen series, Euphoria, is like nothing you’ve ever seen on television. The drug-infused drama is not for the faint at heart. With Drake on the team, you might expect similarities to Degrassi, but this series makes Degrassi look like a walk in the park. Even fans of 13 Reasons Why and similarly edgy, teen-focused shows will probably wince at the scenes, imagery, dialogue and topics that this show takes on.
Created and written by Sam Levinson, the director of the criminally underseen Assassination Nation, and son of famed director Barry Levinson, the show’s piercing writing and stylish visuals are ever-timely and are definitely informed by Levinson's polarizing feature from last year. Euphoria's dizzying, off-kilter storytelling format that many other shows have adopted recently, but the format is at its best when used the way it is on Euphoria. Teen shows that are softer in content like Good Trouble, Marvel's Cloak and Dagger and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have all used formats like this to varying degrees of success, but Euphoria is able to fully keep their centralized storylines intact while still using flashbacks, flashforwards and everything else in between. Every movement in time has a purpose and is not filler content. It helps us understand these multidimensional characters without compromising the just under 50 minutes it has to use each week.
Zendaya masterfully and powerfully leads this brutal and emotional depiction of 2019 teenage life, obliterating her Disney image while delivering what is sure to be among the best performances on television in 2019. Within minutes of the show's first episode, the former Disney star snorts a myriad of drugs, while delivering a monologue on the woes of life and searching for that feeling.
Zendaya stars as Rue, a 17-year-old, liar who is dealing with a drug addiction who has been diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders. Because she is lies and deals with drug addiction, and the story is being told through her lens, we cannot necessarily take everything she narrates and presents at face value. Breaking the fourth wall as she does multiple times per episode, Rue even admits that she may not be the most reliable narrator. Zendaya owns every bit of this, making (or at least trying to make) the audience believe everything she's putting down.
During her introduction and well-after, Rue constantly puts the viewer through uncomfortable experiences, with no apparent interest in changing her ways. Minutes into the series when we learn its premise--Rue returning home from rehab after her sister, Gia (played by Storm Reid in superb, A+ casting) finds her passed out in her own vomit, almost clinging to life. What we see here and will continually see throughout the series, is that Rue is always going to Rue. In one scene, she narrates, “You probably hate me right now,” which is likely true emotion for viewers, but there is an earnestness to the character that the 21-year-old starlet brings, in her search for true happiness and having something to look forward to, only to be met with roadblocks, including herself. She wants to do better, and she tries (sometimes), but it’s out of her control. Still, she’s searching for this contentment.
Throughout the first episodes, we meet the drama’s assortment of characters, many of whom are not directly connected to each other on the canvas. One groundbreaking character is Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender teen girl. Her relationship with Rue will also be groundbreaking in the same sense. At the conclusion of the first half of the series, the distinction of what their relationship actually is will still be up in the air (our unreliable narrator can take part of that blame). Even if it appears to be romantic at times, we’re unsure of the true nature of their relationship and what it could be because these are two people who have found a friend, confidant and soulmate, whether that be platonic or not.
There’s also Nate (Jacob Elordi), a complicated jock with a dark past and present, in the same vein of 13 Reasons Why’s Bryce, but is much more nuanced. In addition, there’s his typically out-of-the-loop girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie), McKay (Algee Smith), a first-year college athlete, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), the sweet girl with a rep, Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie's tamer, younger sister and Rue’s childhood best friend, and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), a teen who is body conscious and learning to explore her sexuality. All of the supporting actors add a particular flair to the show with multi-faceted characters.
It can’t be stated enough how tough the show is to watch, and how just when you think things may ease up, the show just doubles down. Paired with incessant drug use are scenes that include sexual assault, physical assault and gratuitous nudity and sexual situations. A lot of it is downright scary, including a particular scene in Episode 2 that will have you on the edge of your seat. But at the same time, the uncomfortable moments add to the grit, rawness and realness that a show like Euphoria is trying to present. This isn’t like the teen dramas that you watch to feel good. You will feel for the characters, but you’re not necessarily going to feel good while doing that. A thing that it has in common with its less-grittier teen drama predecessors is that it makes use of expansive world-building inside of a high school and its social groups. Although Character A may not share scenes with and/or even acknowledge the existence of Character D they are of relation to each other in the greater Euphoria Cinematic Universe.
One downside to the series so far is the underutilization of the always talented Algee Smith, who doesn’t seem to have much material to work with, at least so far (only four episodes were screened for press). His character is also involved in a plotline where he is pledging a fraternity, which could have been a great opportunity to showcase aspects of Black Greek-letter organizations, especially considering recent attempts to showcase said organizations have been marred in criticism and controversy. While the remainder of the season could change the course, Smith’s character, McKay, seems to be the latest in a trend of so-called colorblind casting in teen dramas, which removes any acknowledgment of a character's culture and how that should impact the writing and storyline. There’s still time for them to correct this later in the season, and given that the show’s format also consists of each episode kicking off with the backstory of a new character, maybe McKay’s will just come later in this season.
Similarly, the show under-utilizes the always excellent Colman Domingo, who appears in a recurring role as a Narcotics Anonymous counselor for Rue. One would think that such a prestigious actor would get more meaty material to work with, though Domingo transcends the material he's given to turn out his performance. Perhaps we’ll see more of him later in the season or if the show comes back for season two.
Euphoria is likely to spur lots of discourse. Parents will wonder “Is this what teens really do?” Some groups might slam the series and call a boycott for it being too edgy and provocative in content. No matter how you’ll feel about the series, Zendaya is a star. She's commanding in this moment and deserves respect for her performance. Black actresses are not often given the opportunities so young in the game in contrast to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Stone and Lily Collins. Zendaya's performance here shows you what happens when Black actresses get space to shine. Although the series is premiering just shy of the 2019 Emmy deadline, hopefully, voters will remember and realize that with this series, she's doing things that no one else is doing on television right now. Zendaya is seizing this moment, turning on her A-game and a star is re-born.
Euphoria debut June 16 on HBO.