In the opening scenes of HBO’s Euphoria, Zendaya’s character Rue narrates the trials of her childhood with a mix of self-pity and boredom. “I’m just fucking exhausted,” she deadpans. Scenes from her birth are interspersed with footage from 9/11, signaling that the show will be preoccupied with struggles specific to the generation of kids born after the tragedy—begrudged, misunderstood Gen Z. The sequence culminates with a montage of now-teenage Rue stealing prescription drugs from her mother’s medicine cabinet. “At some point you make a choice about who you are and what you want,” she says. Rue wants drugs, and Zendaya wants to be taken seriously as an actor.
The 22-year-old’s post-Disney Channel TV debut certainly deserves to be taken seriously, as does the work of the show’s charismatic ensemble cast. Created by Sam Levinson (son of famous filmmaker Barry Levinson), Euphoria follows the lives of a group of high school students navigating friendship, partying, and sex. It may not sound like the most novel concept for a television show, but it’s never been done quite like this. Think the U.K. version of Skins with more emotional complexity and a lot more penises—30 penises in one scene, to be exact, according to the dick detectives over at The Hollywood Reporter.
Based on an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria is anchored by Rue, a 17-year-old opioid addict fresh off a stint in rehab. Viewers are almost immediately confronted with hard-to-watch flashbacks of the overdose that landed Rue in rehab and scenes in which she lies with ease to those she cares about most. It would be a challenging role for any young actor, but Zendaya quickly proves herself capable. In a particularly painful scene, she’s asked to improvise an oral presentation on what she did over the summer. She conveys an impressive range of emotions through her facial expressions alone as she recalls being hospitalized, goofing off with her little sister (Storm Reid), and clashing with her widowed mother (Nika King).
One of the most quietly heartbreaking dynamics of the show is Rue’s strained relationship with her childhood best friend Lexi (Maude Apatow). She prefers to spend time with her new pink-haired, tennis skirt-clad BFF Jules, played by an infectiously likable Hunter Schafer, who she met through her drug dealer. The theme of the protagonist upgrading to a newer, cooler best friend is a classic element of teen drama, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.
In fact, Euphoria borrows plenty of familiar stereotypes—the jock with a temper, the jealous girlfriend, the girl who’s falsely labeled a slut by judgmental peers. Some of these are a bit heavy-handed, but often the performances of the young stars breathe new life into tired tropes. Barbie Ferreira is especially entertaining as Kat, whose adolescent talent for writing sexualized One Direction fanfic evolves into a secret fascination with the world of digital porn.
The artfully-shot series makes suburban America look like a neon disco dreamland full of palm trees, bowling alleys, and teenagers who are impossibly skilled at applying glittery eyeliner. It’s extremely aesthetically pleasing, even as it conveys the harmful distortion of Rue’s reality. However, Euphoria sometimes relies too heavily on the distracting effect of intoxicating visuals and loud, bass-heavy music. The party scenes are among the show’s least interesting, and they’re probably the reason it’s being written off as sensationalized. But seen through the eyes of Rue, a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator, they also serve as a commentary on the high school rumor mill. Did a girl actually try to kill herself in the kitchen, or is that just how people remembered it the next morning at school?
Euphoria succeeds at grappling with timeless adolescent struggles, like impostor syndrome, interpreted in the social media age as catfishing on dating apps, and sending nudes. Rue, like any other teenager, nervously anticipates the first day of school where she is sure everyone will be gossiping about her. It’s also unexpectedly funny, like when Schafer delivers the line, “Bitch, this isn’t the ‘80s! You need to catch a dick!” in response to another character’s confession that she’s a virgin, or a fantasy sequence in which Zendaya’s Rue teaches a health class-style lesson on dick pic etiquette.
In the past few weeks, Euphoria has received an exceptional amount of hype. It’s being promoted as a gritty, unprecedented look at the lives of today’s kids, and is HBO’s first series entirely about teenagers, riding the wave of popular soapy dramas like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why. Of course, there is all of the full-frontal male nudity, a big deal given HBO’s historically unbalanced female-to-male nudity ratio. And it doesn’t hurt publicity that all-star rappers Drake and Future are credited as executive producers.
Whether or not Euphoria is actually as realistic as it claims to be, it’s sure to cause a few panicked parents to brief their children on the dangers of fentanyl or set up parental controls on their internet browsers. But perhaps the strongest aspect of the show is the way it takes its young characters and their problems seriously, no matter how self-indulgent they may sometimes be. Once viewers learn to take Euphoria’s “reality” with a grain of salt and get past the initial shock of overstimulation, they will be treated to an entertaining, sympathetic portrait of teenage life.