Euphoria: Style vs Substance

Euphoria is a fucking trip.

The HBO drama stars Zendaya as struggling drug addict Rue (addicted to what you ask? She’s not really that picky) in a version of high school cooked up by the most paranoid parents imaginable. Everyone’s getting crossfaded and screwing their brains out.

When Euphoria first arrived, it was met with mixed reviews. Some critics were confused as to whether this show was for parents or for Gen Z. Others questioned whether the aggressive drug use and sexual violence was meant to glorify or chide (the show absolutely makes sure to get full milage out of the trigger warning it shows before each episode). Still more furrowed their brow at how divorced from the reality of Gen Z the show’s depiction really is.

All of those criticisms are probably still valid. But as the show has grown throughout its first season, its voice has started to come into focus.

Each episode begins with Rue’s narration giving us a crash course on any one of the ensemble cast. She describes their upbringing, their hopes and dreams, and whatever major turning points they’ve experienced that have given them the outlook they currently have. They’re accompanied by beautiful montages that show us these characters through the years, deconstructing the high school stereotypes we’re introduced to in the first episode: cheerleader, jock, homecoming king, fat girl, new kid.

These are the moments that I think of immediately when I think of the show and they highlight that Euphoria is a banquet for the senses. Vibrant neon colors saturate the screen. Every inch of air time pulses with pop music, undoubtedly due to Drake’s Executive Producer credit. The camera has an energy and mind of its own, particularly in these crash course montages, moving us from one action to the next and blending time and space in order to give us a sense of the flow of events that have created the characters we’re watching. About two thirds of the way through the pilot episode, this style reaches its apex, as Rue gets high and walks through the party, the hallway rotating around her Inception-style, but this time with the added bonus that the people in the hallway aren’t affected — they spin too. The result is a highly stylized and effective representation of Rue’s mindset.

While the critical focus initially might have been on whether Euphoria is true to life, at this point the show has made it clear that it’s not interested in realism, and it shouldn’t be. It’s at its best when it warps the world around its characters, an outward representation of their internal turmoil. We all remember how confusing the world — and our very perception of it — felt around us in high school, and Euphoria is taking that experience, distilling it down into its emotional roots, and injecting it straight into our veins.

This total focus on vibe and tone draws attention away from the weakest part of Euphoria: the plot. It’s not that the stories don’t make sense — they do — it’s that, worse than being muddled, they’re uninteresting. Nate Jacobs, the quarterback fighting his own sexuality, goes around blackmailing people in order to maintain his life and to cover up his violent tendencies. Rue tries to go clean by replacing her addiction to drugs with her addiction to her best friend and crush Jules (played brilliantly by trans actress and future star Hunter Schaefer). These are the two central “plots” around which a couple of things just sort of happen. Kat empowers herself and overcomes her label as a “fat girl” by becoming increasingly sexual, hooking up with guys left and right and starting a camgirl service. McKay is a college freshman football player trying to adjust to that major life change while also balancing a relationship with his girlfriend Cassie.

Each of these characters is interesting and whenever Rue narrates their backstory, I become more invested in them, but it is difficult to see what they are trying to do overall in a narrative sense. The show is at its strongest when it focuses on those characters and their internal conflicts and coping mechanisms rather than trying to create a larger narrative out of it, although it’s still too early to tell if that overarching story is going somewhere meaningful (there have only been 6 episodes of the 8 episode first season).

In that vein, the highlight of the series is whenever Rue and Jules share the screen, and the chemistry between Schaefer and Zendaya can shine. That relationship is complicated. Rue has put a lot of pressure on Jules as the object of all of her energy and attention. Jules is the only way Rue has learned to be sober. Meanwhile, Jules deals homophobia, bigotry, and violence, and simply cannot solely focus on Rue. We can see each character fully, even while they can only peek at each other through a window, seeing only whatever they want to focus on.

Rue and Jules underline everything that makes Euphoria work: creating a stylized reality that shows us who these characters are, even when they cannot, and using that approach to blend in emotional substance.

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