HBO’s hit show Euphoria is about teenagers dealing with drama, drugs, sex, and trauma in a setting of heightened reality. Its technical artistry—specifically the cinematography, lighting, makeup, and music—has been praised but its plots, well, praised less. But as such, Euphoria has sparked conversations around what makes a show set in a modern high school “relatable” or “realistic,” and why we should care about it one way or another.
In watching a TV show about teenagers having sex and doing drugs, a critical framing of relatability and realism connect because the audience is looking through the lens of their experiences: “Does this reflect what I remember high school being like?” or “Could this be what high school is like for my kids?”
I was exposed to this discourse before picking up the show nearly halfway through its second season (after two years of my girlfriend repeatedly recommending it to me), borderline-bingeing it to catch up. And the whole time I kept thinking, “What about this is so hard to believe? What makes it so unrealistic?” When I see the parties on the show I don’t think, “nobody parties like that;” I think, “wow, I don’t miss those parties.” When I see the kids struggling with addiction or depression or struggling through their parents’ divorces, these feel like familiar experiences sensationalized in a way that exemplifies the kind of show A24 and HBO would collaborate on producing. So what is it about this show (that establishes its tone and late-2010s setting by the protagonist announcing she was born three days after 9/11) that feels like a bridge too far?
While the coherence of the plot and dialogue is just barely held together by performances that could use better direction, Euphoria overall feels like a confluence of various real-world issues stretched into exaggerated versions. Because its desire seems to be to entertain rather than enlighten or inform, it stacks all these social hazards (catfishing, underaged people on dating apps and porn sites, drug addiction, human trafficking, etc.) in a way that is exciting while presented plausibly enough to suspend disbelief. Maybe seeing all these problems is scary for some audience members, especially parents. Maybe it’s scary for the people who run D.A.R.E. (though I have to say, this is not a show that makes drugs look glamorous). The show is engagingly tense in its ridiculousness, though it’s difficult to get angry at most of the characters, especially regarding relationships, because they’re teenagers. (There’s a particular sociopath that everyone, including myself, remains quite justifiably angry at, but even he is shown to be a product—though not exclusively a victim—of circumstance.)
Part of what breaks the immersion and invites critique are Euphoria’s pacing problems. Too many plates end up spinning with not enough time to put them down. Euphoria likes to play with ideas about time dilation to sink the audience into the protagonist’s mindset as a drug addict self-medicating intense mental health problems. However, it also struggles to stake itself to specific points in time, which can make the narrative feel floaty. There are a few events that work as signposts—an end of summer party, a fall festival chili cookoff, a Halloween party, a New Year’s Eve party—but the time covered between episodes and within each episode varies as the show shifts between protagonists, and it can be hard to tell whether the lack of clarity is intentional rather than incidental. A surplus of scene cuts occasionally makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on; dramatic tension can fizzle when you cut between one character’s flashback and another character’s present day. This happened in the Season 1 finale when an episode concluded by a musical number that began by expressing the protagonist’s separation from reality, but ended with a marching band in the middle of the street, exemplifying the show’s commitment to music and style over plot and substance. Similarly, both the polaroid-snapshot cuts at the end of the Season 2 premiere and the cuts between surreal final shots at the end of Episode 5 of Season 2 felt like visual over-explanation of thematic points. It’s not that Euphoria is misrepresenting teenagers, it’s that it gets in the way of its own storytelling.
What’s especially worthy of inspection, though, is how the show handles sexuality, specifically how it handles nudity. First off, thinking about teenagers as sexual beings makes people uncomfortable, because even the legal adults among them are practically children. While the concept of “horny teens” did not start with Euphoria, it can nonetheless be disconcerting to watch adults have their bodies revealed while pretending to be teenagers, because it feels like it’s supposed to be titillating and therefore can feel violating. In Euphoria, as ever, there’s much more frontal female nudity (breasts) than male (penises), though the ratio isn’t as out of whack as it often is elsewhere.
Strictly speaking, none of this is “necessary;” what matters is if the nudity contributes to the storytelling. Still, I think we could have the same emotional effects if show creator Sam Levinson cut back on female nudity, as all bodies aren’t handled equally. Does this tool effectively produce an effect of vulnerability? Is some of that emotional effect lost when audiences have been exposed to artful and crass nudity for decades of television and film, thereby making it seem exploitative? Is a related claim of perversion derived from the U.S. cultural tradition of sex as taboo, which condemns and adulterates all gender and sexual expression as a result? Or are we all justifiably on edge because nearly every day we learn news of scandals and abuses by men in positions of power over young women?
While I empathize with the contention that it’s odd so many shows dealing with sexual themes are set in high schools, I think comes back to relatability. Adolescence is when many of us begin to wrestle with our sexuality. I also think that high school is widely accessible enough that creators can reasonably expect most of the population to have broadly experienced it similarly, providing the largest viewer pool. Furthermore, it’s a storytelling space that allows for audiences to encounter adult themes with an age group that is considered young enough to not be experts on themselves; to have space to be wrong and to work out those ideas. Most people aren’t social experts, but teenagers also aren’t expected to be, and it’s easy for adults to watch a TV show and see, empathize, and learn from the places where teens are clearly wrong or are working things out.
Experiencing these shows and the conversations around them, I wonder: who gets to make shows about teenagers, and what should they look and feel like? From sex-positive series like Netflix’s Sex Education to more grounded teenage experiences such as On My Block (also Netflix) and even older series like Freaks and Geeks (ABC, now on Hulu), these series each serve a purpose. By dealing with sexuality—and in the case of Euphoria, heavy drug use—as well as things that many of us didn’t have the tools to assess when we first began encountering them, these shows are eliciting conversations among adults that may prove crucial to young adult development while much of the U.S. still does not mandate comprehensive sex education or drug education and some school boards and governments are campaigning against transgender youth.
None of these shows have the responsibility or capability of perfectly reproducing anyone’s adolescent experience, but it’s good if they’re provoking us to interrogate what that experience is like today, and moreover why we’re uncomfortable with facing who we were and who we weren’t as teenagers. Euphoria isn’t perfect, but its flaws are largely formal and structural rather than representational. They’re about choices made behind the camera, and those choices can cloud our consideration of whether the show is “relatable” or “realistic,” when maybe what we’re looking for is just authenticity.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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