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.
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.