Euphoria is a Hot Mess and I Can't Stop Watching It

by Paul Deeter

Content Warning: Self-harm, Sexual Assault.

There's a moment in watching a bad TV show, it's happened with many more before this one, in which you figure out it's not getting any better. There's not a lot of reason to keep pushing through a show you discover isn't getting any better, because there's not a lot to gain from a bad series. It's certainly a risk in watching a show past Season 1 if that initial season is a bomb, but there are cases of shows that stumble before they walk. I can think of a few off hand, including some of the greatest shows of all time. The Simpsons is a good example of this, and a good example of an animated show that doesn't quite figure out how popular it's going to be until people start noticing how good it is. Early episodes of Simpsons are animated in a looser style, not sloppy but yet to confidently shape out each character from one another. And say what you will about the current and previous seasons post around 7-9, there's some undeniable gold in its classic episodes. South Park is a show that hit the ground running in its second episode, due to the fact that the stop motion photography element of the show, (where the creators would literally animate the episodes frame by frame by shooting a photo of each little micro movement per second), they dropped that process.

And on the other end, live action TV shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a comedy example, or serious shows like American Horror Story, (we don't talk about Murder House..) are shows that got their footing and realized what their identity was in the follow up seasons. And success followed. Now, here is Euphoria, a show that masks its own insecurities about being a quality TV show, with excess in two ways. One: the show is gorgeous. I won't be the first one to talk about this, but Euphoria literally glistens with its style of neon soaked shots and glittered up faces lost in the literal ecstasy. The beautiful L.A. landscape of the show is the backing to the colorful cast of characters in their all too stylish clothes that are in real life definitely inappropriate for high school. Even without the obvious FX filters, the shooting style of the show implements crowded parties with overwhelmingly intense soundtrack cues, never letting down the freneticism of the narrative. This show is frenetic. How?

Two: This show is as raunchy, over-the-top and batshit insane as it is beautiful. When a new show, especially an HBO project, is introduced to the network, there is usually a good degree of shock-value via violence and sex and/or debauchery. So when Euphoria hits the ground running on the subject of overdose, rough sex and self-harm, I figured, hey, it's gotta hook the audience somehow. But oh boy, the show never seems to let off that 90mph gratuity. While the show introduces some of the wildest (and as always, oldest looking) teenagers to be living in this age, we get the sense that deep down, each of them is harboring the same insecurities that the show reflects in its delivery. Let's take the phenomenal Rue who's played by Zendaya. She is an example of the lost character, struggling from a post addictive lifestyle that was abruptly halted by overdose. When her sister finds her and she gets through a stint at the hospital to get clean, in a perfect world, we'd see her on the path to straight and narrow. With the OD set in flashbacks to the opening episode, it is clear from the get-go that Rue is not planning on staying sober. In fact, I think she even goes so far as to basically say: "this is not a recovery story." With her love for feeling "euphoric" from the use of party substances, she floats through her life back at home using drugs secretly and borrowing friends' urine to pass pee tests administered by her mother. Rue is our protagonist, and she suffers almost as bad as the worst of our characters.

Unlike her, there are some absolutely terrible characters morally. There's the jock, the "weird" girl, various valley-type teens and every other rote genre-reliant character in any high school show. As if Euphoria was not struggling enough with its image, it uses excess to push it beyond that typical genre show to shock us into being engaged with it. Worried about the growth of the jock character from his stereotype? Well Euphoria goes so far as to make him a psychopath, beating up alleged rapists and stalking ex-girlfriends. But maybe there's more to him because he's texting our likeable trans character, Jules? One episode after he nearly murders someone in his house, he's romancing Jules. Uh did we forget about something? Or here's a 17-year old who discovers after a potential scandal where a sex-tape of hers goes viral, that maybe sex work is her calling. While this is problematic enough due to her age, the show glosses over this easily expandable fear of being outed by a nasty rumor, by playing it off as a character development to lead her into this decision. They really had an opportunity to discuss bullying, and the fear of being seen in a vulnerable way at a young age, but instead flipped it into a character arc that seems just a bit unbelievable. She's not a bad character but she jumps from 0-60 awfully quick in what could have been developed better. The actor deserved better. And again, Rue floats through this, kind of our likeable anti-hero. She steps away from some of the violent and sexual extremities the show commits but isn't perfect herself. It takes an actor like Zendaya to keep her likeable.

Winner of the Most-Punchable Face Award.

The characters are extreme, as is the the story, and without too many likeable characters outside of our lead and her trans best friend, what do we do when we watch anybody other than them on screen? Perhaps if you're like me, you squint at the screen with fingers around your eyes. I'm no prude, and after watching Possessor I feel like I can handle pretty much anything violent on screen, but holy cow these guys get up to no good. In episode two alone our Rue is almost victim to assault in a drug addict's den by a creep with a knife. It's definitely too much. But at the same time when you lay it on this thick, with unrelatable characters and unbelievable scenarios its almost humorous how wild it gets, and you'll find it easier to laugh at what you're watching then feeling any sense of sympathy. And that begs the question: who is the target audience here? AV Club sums it up best in their one whole season review of the show.

Throughout the first stretch of the series, the question of who exactly this series is for needles the mind. It’s about Gen Z but certainly isn’t aimed at them. And that’s not necessarily a recipe for undoing—plenty of teen shows are made for adults or at least for teens and adults in tandem. But there’s an unnerving sense throughout Euphoria that this is a kaleidoscope into modern teen life framed by and packaged for older viewers who become voyeurs of these teens... It doesn’t feel edgy so much as a razor’s edge indiscriminately slicing through the air, targetless and wild. - Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

This is A24's only TV production, so far at least, a highly respected film company that puts out some adult projects like Midsommar and The Florida Project. These aren't films for kids, and even won't appeal to younger adults, outside of the kinophiles like I was when I was a teenager. Euphoria balances that voyeurism sloppily and almost incriminates itself in the process. It's smut-filled teen drama, making shows like 13 Reasons Why seem tame.

Jules and Rue Deserve Better TV

So why, is a 29 year old Kino fan like myself not immediately turned off by the show's gratuitous attempt at sex appeal and shock value? Well. I don't know. The show is not poorly made, sometimes the direction is brilliant in fact. I haven't finished the first season, but there's an early episode that weaves drug use and other scandals in a fairground, while children play and enjoy the same rides these characters are on. The camerawork here is so loopy it feels like Gaspar Noe and Harmony Korinne made this episode as a collaborative lovechild. It's colorful and obscene, but it gets that. It know what it's doing and plays fun with itself. Is that due to maybe multiple directors or writers working on the same project, some outdoing themselves versus others? It's tough to say. It's season one.

It's partly a train-wreck in ten acts. It's an episodic movie, but instead of feeling like walking out of the theater at any point, I have the ability to know when I can or need to turn this off. And dammit, it gets me! There's a lot of twists and turns at bay too. In a town as big as L.A. and a high school as big as the one the characters live in, why do these guys constantly become involved in one anothers' issues? It's almost as if they all reside in episode four's fair: bumping into each other like bumper cars stuck in a small track. The show doesn't have to flesh out more than it's 8-12 share of characters in this season, but it bends believability that some of the anonymous things that happen to one another, the scandals and the moments of coincidence, can occur amid such a large setting. So while I enjoy the twists that happen here, I'm also amused by the fantasy that this show plays into, and its hard not to find that amusing.

On another level, some of the characters here, including a drug-dealing ten year old and an unwitting principal give some killer performances and have fun doing it. If only the other actors took themselves less seriously. So with some solid direction, great performances and a whole lot of stupidity in the narrative among the shock appeal and disgusting excess the show offers up, I'm at a bit of a fork in the road. I feel like that quote from Bob's Burgers where Bob agrees to going to a social event but says "he's going to complain the whole time" during. I have a platform to complain, and even writing this article has brought me some enjoyment of the show on another level. So take this as a warning or a heads up before going down the route I did expecting an A24 caliber project. This show sucks. It's undeniable that season one is a hot mess. But whether it goes on to be a better show, or simply one that keeps offering binge-levels of excess with beautiful direction. So yes it's a mess.

Bless this mess.

21 views0 comments