Euphoria: Is Zendaya’s hit show really that shocking?

·7-min read
 (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
(HBO / Sky Atlantic)

Less than two minutes into the new season of Euphoria — Sam Levinson’s dreamy, druggy high school drama that returned for a second season this month — and viewers are already confronted with a penis (erect, no less). It happens while two people are engaging in an intimate act in the back of a strip club; neither are main characters but the internet was immediately alight with shock and outrage.

Fans joked online about the affronting scene — and the awkwardness of parents catching a glimpse of the episode in their living rooms. All of which cued up the inevitable debate about who the show is actually for. Ostensibly a drama set in a high school and featuring Gen Z icons such as Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, it nevertheless deals with the kinds of adult themes that leave most parents cringing in fear. The East Highland classmates have more wild sex and do more hard drugs than many people see in their lifetimes, let alone high school.

This isn’t the first moral panic that spiralled off the back of the show. In 2019, when word got out that Euphoria broadcasts 30 penises in a single episode in season one (the second episode), the show was granted immediate infamy among those who hadn’t even seen it. Thirty was simply too many dicks. A panic, amongst concerned parents and in the media, ensued, with Esquire calling the show “pointlessly gratuitous”.

Sydney Sweeney as Cassie (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
Sydney Sweeney as Cassie (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

As the series raged on, so did the controversy around it. Euphoria been most praised for its candidness, its character development, and its gorgeous costuming and cinematography. But its harshest critics continue to rail against the risqué elements of the series. Are these depictions realistic? Are they dangerous?

Of course, outrageous depictions of teen life are an established part of film and television history. In the Nineties, coming of age drama Kids became notorious for its take on teenage drug-taking, sex and general hedonism in New York, packaged in a pseudo-documentary format. Just over a decade later, Skins scandalised a generation of parents on this side of the Atlantic, who worried that the gritty teen show would cause harm to kids. In this sense, Euphoria is really nothing new; it is building on a tradition of edgy TV that pushes the bounds of what we consider culturally appropriate storytelling about teenagers.

But how founded are these fears? Demographically, it feels important to point out that while Euphoria is a series about teenagers, that doesn’t mean that teenagers are its main audience. In the US, the show is rated TV-MA, which states that no one under 17 should watch — although obviously many do. HBO Max, the streaming platform where the show is most watched in the US, gears its content at millennials with disposable income. The target audience is similar at Sky Atlantic, where you can watch Euphoria in the UK. And, while Zendaya is undoubtedly a Gen Z starlet, she and many of her co-stars are in their mid-twenties (because, of course, sex scenes). Lots of their fans are the same age.

Alexia Demie as Maddy (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
Alexia Demie as Maddy (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

As a 27-year-old obsessive viewer, I can confirm that Euphoria doesn’t have the feel of an exclusively ‘teen show’. In terms of the series’ tone, a friend of mine recently compared it to The Sopranos, for its ability to study the psyches of a complex web of characters. Euphoria also takes explanatory detours to flesh out concepts like camgirl work and dick pics — which seem to be more geared at older viewers than at in-the-know teens. And when it comes to its other ‘scandalous’ themes, I would hesitate to agree that any of the issues at hand are outright glamourised. Much of it isn’t glamorous at all. When we meet Rue in season one, she doesn’t make drugs look fun. She is an addict in recovery, who spends time attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and hashing out problems with her middle-aged sponsor. When her new friend Jules (Schafer) hooks up with a grown man, it feels scary and dangerous. Later in the series, there is a harrowing pregnancy storyline. We also see both the potential thrills, and the very real inevitable threats, that come with sending nudes. When Rue’s younger sister starts getting high, Rue is livid because she knows the struggle of addiction first hand. The show manages to explore each of these themes in an honest way, without ever adopting the preachy tone of an after-school special.

While most viewers joke that Euphoria doesn’t resemble their high school experience – and that their teen selves most resembled Lexi (Maude Apatow), Rue’s goody-two-shoes childhood best friend – the show doesn’t necessarily have to be hyper-realistic to cover important ground. Like all fiction, there are elements of both reality and unreality, which fold into each other. Generation Z, the 10-25 age group that viewers are clutching our pearls on behalf of, are the first cohort to grow up with no memory of what life was like offline. Research suggests that their parents have little real understanding of what this means; a 2019 study by the British Board of Film Classification found that over half of 11-17-year-olds had seen porn online, but three quarters of parents thought their children had never seen it. One in four teenagers have received a sext (sexually explicit text) by the age of 18. In this light, Euphoria’s coverage of porn and sexting seems relevant for people in their late teens and early twenties.

Jacob Elordi as Nate (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
Jacob Elordi as Nate (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

Each of the other themes that crop up in the show, whether it’s transness, drug use, fatphobia, unprotected sex, sex work or pregnancy, show up in your average high school year group in some shape or form. Not everyone in the class is going to be affected, but the issues are there all the same. Even Rue’s character, whose struggles with addiction might feel far-fetched for a 17-year-old, is based on Levinson, who was in and out of rehab throughout his own youth. As Zendaya told the Guardian when the show first aired in 2019: “Just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening every day, all the time.” And that’s what Euphoria does best: it takes life and embellishes it in a creative way – with a thick layer of rhinestones, mood lighting and other excess.

None of this is to say that the explicit content of the show isn’t sometimes extremely gratuitous – and the history of scandalous teen dramas suggests that this kind of provocation is a surefire publicity strategy. In the case of Euphoria, the infamous ‘dick-pocalypse’ scene launched a thousand opinion pieces about the ethics of the show before it had even aired. And, as journalist Evan Romano has pointed out, the scene itself is a comical cutaway that could easily exist as “a standalone piece of content, meant to go viral and be shared, context be damned”. This reminds me of Gossip Girl’s advertising push back in the early 2000s, which deliberately cherry-picked conservative reviews (including “mind-blowingly inappropriate” and “every parent’s worst nightmare”) and blew up the quotes on their promo posters. It’s also reminiscent of the edgy screenshots of Larry Clark’s Kids that did the rounds on Tumblr into the 2010s, which still had the power to prompt millennial teenagers to ask: “what is this from and where can I watch it?” It makes sense to be critical of scandal for scandal’s sake.

But, as with the Skins panic of my own generation, I think parents can sometimes underestimate young people’s critical capacities. Call me a square, but when I was a teenager, I never wholesale copied any of the behaviour I saw on TV. As a 17-year-old said of Euphoria on Common Sense Media, a site that crowdsources suggested age ratings for films and TV: “Everyone is saying there is too much swearing but if you know the ‘f word’ you will be fine. People say there is too much sex, I learned about sex in 5th grade at school FROM TEACHERS.” One critical teen made a thread on Reddit: “None of people at my school act like that. I was shocked to see how many people were saying how realistic the show is but to me, it’s incredibly overdramatic because I have never seen any of this happen in high school?!?!”

Euphoria is a show mired in these sorts of contradictions: it is both realistic and unrealistic, other-worldly and down-to-earth, scandalous and mundane, radical and traditional. It is in these contradictions that the show’s magic lies. Whether you’re 18 or 68, it will be the most outrageous show you’ll see this year. But it will also feel digestible – and strangely close to home.

Euphoria is on Sky Atlantic and Now, new episodes on Mondays

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