Fighting to Stay On the Wagon

Euphoria: Season 1

HBOThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. has been the home for prestige television for years now. You can pinpoint the exact year it happened: 1999 with The Sopranos, although the network did have solidly prestige shows before then. HBO always had a knack for being able to do what other networks couldn't (and not just because they didn't have to follow any kind of "broadcast standards"). Other networks have tried to take the mantle of prestige from HBO, like AMC and Showtime, but none have managed to come close. HBO is just able to make solid, well-produced, challenging programs that no one else can quite touch.

One of HBO's latest works, Euphoria, certainly fits their "prestige" qualification. It's a well made, well acted show that you couldn't find on "normal" channels. It has sex and drugs use and violence and language, and it's all told from the perspective of high school teens (or, at least, adult actors pretending to be high school teens). It had storylines about bullying, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and sexual identity. Most importantly, though, it's good. Really good. Award winning good. And that's why, after that show with dragons in its, it's HBO's second most popular program currently on the air.

The series ostensibly follows Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a drug addicted teen who has just gotten out of rehab. She nearly overdosed three months earlier, after a long struggle with drugs (although, really, Rue didn't struggle with them; she willingly pursued them), and Rue had spent the entire summer in rehab. Back out in the world, Rue immediately gets back on drugs, because she's an addict who doesn't want to quit (no matter how hard her mom tries to enforce a "no drug" policy).

Things slowly shift for Rue, though, when she meets Jules Vaughn (9Hunter Schafer), a transgender teen just starting out the school year in a new (for her) town. The two quickly become best friends after Jules has a freak out at a party, fighting off the aggressive (and angry) advances of quarterback (and general all around scary fucker) Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi). We also meet the rest of their friend group -- Nate's girlfriend (and wannabe bored housewife) Maddy (Alexa Demie), sweet (but considered quite slutty) Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), Cassie's younger sister (and Rue's one-time best friend) Lexi (Maude Apatow), and picked on heavier girl who then finds new life as a cam queen Online, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) -- as their stories inform our understand of their lives in this moment in time.

To say Euphoria is a challenging watch would be an understatement. The show deals quite matter of factly with all of its subjects, from drugs to sex to abuse and more. There is no sugar-coating, no "super happy moments" to help perk up the story. It's dark and at times quite depressing, but that's in service of a story that's true. If it tried to sugarcoat anything all that would do is under-cut the actual reality of the show making things fake when these characters need their reality.

That isn't to say that there aren't light moments. Most of the show is narrated by Rue, and while she can get into the dark and disturbing of each of the character's lives, opening each episode with a tale of on character's past, she can also add in needed moment of humor. A perfect example is when the show turns to a discussion of dick pics (yes, you will see a lot of dicks in this episode) and Rue then gives, to the audience, a lesson on the right and wrong ways to take a dick pic. She gives a full lesson, including slides projected on a wall and everything. It's hilarious.

In these moments the show does find a heightened reality (as with any time Rue is on drugs). She can turn to the camera, inform us of things, and generally comment on what's going on. Weirdly, this reminded me of Saved By the Bell, with Zack Morris and his "freeze frame" abilities. Rue is like a darker, drug addicted Zack Morris, the center of the story as she watches to world swirl around her. It's an interesting angle and acts almost like a callback to other teen shows from before.

You actually get the vibe that writer / director Sam Levinson (who handles all the episodes of the show) wanted to comment on all the teen shows of the past. "You think you know what would have really happened in 90210 or Saved By the Bell, but here's what teens are really up to when no one is around." While not every teen is going out and having a ton of sex or doing a bunch of drugs, all of that is out there and the show doesn't have them shy away from it. If it's freely available, teens will use it, just like they use the Internet and all the addictive things on there.

As far as storylines go, Rue's in the focus and the strongest by far. Watching her and Jules rotate around each other, slowly falling in love, gives the series some hope (even as you suspect Rue is going to fall apart sooner or later and relapse at any time even when she "says" she's getting clean). It might seem cliche to put a love story at the center of a teen TV series, but when it's between a drug-addicted girl and her transgender friend it does feel a bit less cliche.

That said some of the characters come into focus better than others. Kat gets a fair bit of focus as she goes on a sexual journey of discovery, learning who she wants to be on her own terms. She comes off much better than, say, Cassie, who never really seems to figure out her life, not even for a day, or Lexi, who starts and ends the season in default "mean girl" mode. The worst is Nate who, one assumes, is slowly being built up as the villain of the show series but who is written mostly just as an abusive asshole who gets away with whatever he wants. There's more going on with his family, and we catch glimpses of it, but Nate really needs to come into focus the way we see for Rue or Kat.

Still, this is a richly populated world with a lot going on (and a lot of darkness around every corner). It's not an easy watch but it is an interesting and compelling show in its own way. If you can manage to get into the material there's a lot to appreciate about Euphoria, you just have to know that the series isn't going to be for everyone.