Review: HBO Raises the Stakes on Teenage Transgression in ‘Euphoria’

Review: HBO Raises the Stakes on Teenage Transgression in ‘Euphoria’


The bar keeps going up in the arena of self-consciously provocative teenage drama. “13 Reasons Why” made suicide its subject, and included a fairly graphic depiction of a bullied girl slitting her wrists. “The End of the ___ing World” sent a self-identifying psychopath on a road trip cum crime spree with a girl he planned to kill.

Now along comes HBO’s high-school-will-kill-you series “Euphoria,” already both celebrated and condemned for pushing the envelope. (The conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council has pre-emptively scolded HBO for “grossly irresponsible programming.”) It offers drugs, despair, danger and lots of sex, in rough, violent, inappropriate, illegal and mortifying forms.

But what sets it apart is penises. Miles and miles of penises, in locker rooms, video chats, selfies and grainy home videos. They populate dating apps, uncomplainingly accept condoms and in one case get masturbated in plain view of a webcam. Even for HBO, it’s more penises than we’ve seen since “Oz,” and that was set in a men’s prison.

Which isn’t to say they’re gratuitous, or gratuitous without reason, if that makes sense. The show’s creator, writer and primary director, Sam Levinson (adapting a 2013 Israeli series), is doing his part to redress the premium-cable gender imbalance when it comes to nudity. (And it gives him cover for the amount of time some of the show’s young actresses spend topless.) He’s also making a point about the way in which male desire and fantasy drive the sexual interactions of the teenage characters, at least until the girls fight back.

Levinson is a talented writer whose name (along with those of John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum) was on one of the best television screenplays of recent years, the HBO movie “The Wizard of Lies,” which was directed by his father, Barry Levinson. He has a lot of points to make in “Euphoria,” about social media, sexual uncertainty and anxiety, the horror chamber of life in contemporary suburban America and the essential uselessness of parents. (Through four of the first season’s eight episodes, they are mostly treated like pets who occasionally get to give the orders.)

His success in embedding those ideas in drama is mixed, the results sometimes engaging, often frustrating. He creates characters who are more than just social-issue markers, but he has too many of them rattling around in too many plot threads that seem to barely get started halfway through the season. He hews to the genre’s fundamentals by combining tender, coming-of-age relationship drama with elements of mystery and horror, but they don’t mesh in a way that enlivens the story. He oscillates distractingly among tones and styles, jumping between dark-comic satire and earnest melodrama. The juggling of plot lines results in scenes continually being cut off before they develop momentum.

It’s too bad, because scene by scene, piece by piece, there are things to like. “Euphoria” centers on Rue (the former Disney Channel star Zendaya), a 17-year-old with a drug problem that encompasses coke, her mother’s Xanax and whatever her noble-slacker drug dealer, Fezco (a charming Angus Cloud), has on hand. She’s the show’s omniscient narrator, like a zoned-out Carrie Bradshaw, and a lot of time is not too profitably spent on her progress in rehab; her drug use, and the reasons for it, are so far the show’s least interesting thread, and Zendaya is correspondingly flat in the scenes devoted to it.

[Read an interview with Zendaya, the star of “Euphoria.”]

She, and the show, are much better in Rue’s other story line, her friendship and-or romance with the new kid in town, a transgender girl named Jules who has a joyful sanity and tenacity as played by Hunter Schafer, a model making her screen-acting debut. They have an easy intimacy, and Levinson doesn’t (through the early stages, at least) belabor any issues of gender or sexuality, of who wants or accepts what — he lets the complexities hang in the air, while Jules chases an online hookup who has his own toxic cloud of issues.

And there are lots of issues elsewhere in the show, among the subplots competing for screen time. The most entertaining involves Kat (Barbie Ferreira), a large girl who discovers, mostly to her delight, that there is an online audience ready to help her monetize what she considers her flaws. The most clichéd, in a close race, features Eric Dane as a fiercely closeted father who’s had a debilitating influence on his football-star son. (To be fair, the scenario doesn’t play out entirely as you’d expect, and Dane gets to play notes other than violent repression.)

As a director, Levinson doesn’t always serve his own material well. In an episode set at a carnival you can see what he’s going for — a swirling, neon-lit roundelay among all the characters’ stories — but he can’t quite conjure the magic onscreen. A moment that should be a high point, when Jules and Rue react after discovering the identity of one of Jules’s online hookups, is shot first through a scrim of carnival booths and then from behind — when we most want to see their faces, we can’t.

At the risk of being ruinously condescending, it’s worth wondering how “Euphoria” might have turned out with someone more experienced — Barry Levinson, say — in the producing mix. (The most prominently credited executive producers, after Sam Levinson, are the rapper Drake and his manager.) Sometimes transgression can benefit from organization.

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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