As someone born in 1998, I just about made it out of the group of generation Z kids that completely grew up with social media. I didn’t get a phone until I was almost 12 years old and even then it was a little brick without any Internet, with its most redeeming quality being the radio. I mean MSN was a thing back in primary school and I watched Facebook begin to dig its claws into my peers throughout secondary/high school (my Nigerian mother said no way Iseduwa), but that’s about as exciting as it got for me until I started using Twitter when I was around 16. I learnt how to communicate, create relationships and more importantly function without the use of social media. It wasn’t until four episodes into ‘Euphoria’ that I realised just how much of a blessing this was.
This show is literally about a group of teenagers in high school, which on the surface doesn’t seem like anything new hence my initial apprehension. With Zendaya starring, who prior to this project hadn’t given me a reason to believe she had the acting ability to carry an entire television show, I approached this with very low expectations. It took precisely 5 minutes to shut me all the way up, as we’re instantly slapped in the face with unexpectedly heavy and quite frankly dark tone. Zendaya’s character, Rue, dives straight into an extremely depressing story about her journey from an anxiety ridden child to drug addicted teenager who literally heads straight to her dealers house as soon she is out of rehab, after almost overdosing. The flashbacks, told with the smoothest transitions, have enough humour to illicit a chuckle without removing from the gravity of the topic, and some of the best casting I’ve seen on television in a long time, are my favourite things about this show.
Flashbacks are usually plonked in the middle of random episodes when the character at hand is relaying their own tragic tales to whomever and quite frankly I’ve always found them cringey with that white vignette all over the screen. But this show does it so well, mainly because of my second favourite thing about it: the fucking cinematography (shoutout to Marcell Rév and the rest of this team). I am not joking when I say that as a film nerd and photographer, I have had to pause this show multiple times per episode just to scream out of pure ecstasy at a transition, camera angle/motion or the fuckingggggg colourssssss. Each time the sound fades out and you can feel just how anxious Rue is getting, or when the scenes start fast cutting and you can feel her slipping into a manic episode or even one when the scenes start gently falling into each other and you suddenly feel as heavy has the depression on her shoulders. This show uses every medium available from sound, costume, hair, makeup all the way to colour grading to effectively set the tone so brilliantly, I could cry.
The third and arguably the most obviously notable thing about this show is the acting. As far as I’m concerned, every single member of this cast is showing out. From Angus Cloud’s slow but endearing take on the resident drug dealer Fez, Sydney Sweeny’s seemingly ditzy but extremely deliberate performance as Cassie to Jacob Elordi’s minimalistic but incredibly angered embodiment of Nate (I could talk for ages about his character but wasn’t that scene with his dad in the finale incredible?). The biggest surprise to me was Zendaya if I’m being honest. Like most people, although I have absolutely adored this girl ever since she was popping and locking on Shake it Up with Bella Thorne, I had never seen any acting from her that suggested she had the range for this role. But in she comes with the terrible posture, dry sense of humour, laid back but oddly cohesive wardrobe, all mumbles, anxiety-ridden and overall struggling with eye-contact level awkwardness, that again proves me so wrong. For the first half of the season you watch Rue’s battle with addiction, which is heartbreaking because you’re already rooting for her.
It then transitions into her battle with what appears to be severe bipolar disorder. The door to overacting is always right there when it comes to mental health issues, especially one as erratic as bipolar, but she doesn’t even glance at it. She lets the depression in and just sits with it, exactly the way one has to just sit with their depression, and then she skillfully embodies the mania in a humorous but extremely straight to the point way that kind of has you nodding along, trying your best to follow her thought process.
Euphoria tells the story of how the high school experience, albeit not a pleasant one in any decade, has morphed into something that none of us senior citizens can even begin to comprehend. We all remember how tales of last night’s party can spin out of control in true Chinese whispers fashion but back in our day this would at least take a day, maybe two, giving the victim enough time to do damage control. But during the first episode, we watch Kat (played exceptionally by Barbie Ferreira) have her first sexual experience at a party only to get to school the next day and have everybody laughing at her because everyone has seen the video. And then somehow Kat manages to flip the narrative entirely & turn this experience into an online sex work persona. We see Maddy be completely aware of the fact that she’s being abused by Nate & we see him be completely aware that he’s abusing her and not know why. We see Nate get away with it, because he is on the right side of privilege in all of his identities. We watch Cassie’s mother snap out of her drunken state to hold her daughter’s hand through the abortion.
We see the main character be openly queer and nobody bats an eye when she starts a very confusing romantic relationship with the enigma that is Jules, a trans girl. Everything we’re seeing is the same, but it feels so new.
Sam Levingston chooses to open each episode barring the finale with a fast paced, monotonously narrated flashback of each of the main character’s childhoods, that somehow seem to make every stupid thing that has ever come out of their mouth make so much sense, because of course you’re fucked up after that. These characters are so well layered and I know the journey to discovering them has only just begun. I’ve seen a lot of people criticize his writing for being slightly heavy handed and I would agree if he weren’t telling the fucking truth. Each of these characters feels like an exaggeration of some sort because surely this can’t actually be happening. But it is.
All the talk around the show’s apparent controversy shouldn’t distract you from the fact that they’ve genuinely managed to create the first accurate depiction on the modern high school experience because unlike us, escapism is the only way they’ve been taught to cope.