Photo by Monica Schipper
Artillery Row

Blood and guts in high school

“Euphoria” is the nightmare the older generation saw coming

It’s hard to believe it, but the inspiration for the fictional Euphoria — the drug-crazed, fashion-conscious, sex-obsessed drama set in a high school in Los Angeles — was a tragic death that occurred in Israel. An 18-year old was confronted by the boyfriend of a girl he was talking to in a club; he was later found murdered. This sequence of events led to the Israeli series of the same name in 2012. American actor and filmmaker Sam Levinson created the US version, which made its debut in 2019.

The opening episode was a taster for the excessive violence and nudity heading our way

The delayed second series (Covid being the culprit, naturally) is now with us, with HBO teasing diehard fans with a new episode ahead of each school week. The opening episode of the new series was a taster for the excessive violence and nudity heading our way. Euphoria travels to extremes that no other TV teen saga has ever chartered. The territory is unique to Generation Z, the Tik Tok age and the 21st century.

The current series begins by going back a decade, taking us through the infancy of young drug dealer Fezco — before he built his empire in a local garage, assisted by his pre-adolescent, gun-totting accomplice, Ashtray. The explicit sequence in which his gangster grandmother leaves her infant charge in the car as she wades through a sex club during a busy period, and shoots a man in the throes of fellatio, left even The Guardian critic unable to watch and feeling a tad prudish.

When Euphoria first appeared it was assumed the series was a vehicle for Spider Man actress Zendaya. She’s cast as the drug-addicted teenager Rue, who narrates the drama and has bouts of being clean and sober often to appease her flighty love interest Jules, the new kid in town played by Prada model Hunter Schafer. The two are perhaps the least interesting characters in the series, defined as they are by drugs and transgenderism, subjects that struck some of us older viewers as novel when we were teens in the 1970s while such subjects shocked our parents.

That’s not to say that Euphoria panders to the woke agenda. In fact, it’s arguably post-woke. Race, sexuality and gender are relevant, sometimes alluded to, but never hammered home. Jules — who styles herself somewhere between Hello Kitty and My Little Pony, despite her age — does return to the trans theme often (an experience that both the character and the actor have in common). In a two-hander with her and a shrink — one of two lengthy fillers between each series — she suggests her transgender identity can be largely attributed to an effort to appeal to men. Now that she’s a transgender lesbian, she plans to remove the chip from her body that keeps the voice high and the testicles small. In short: She kissed a girl and she liked it. 

Fashion has become as much a defining moment in the series as the exquisite cinematography and the omnipresent soundtrack which, although laden with rap, takes a Lynchian detour when you least expect it by bringing in Orville Peck and at one point, rather brilliantly, Jim Reeves singing “Snowflake”. When Maddie (Alexa Demie) slipped on something from an early collection of the recently departed Thierry Mugler, there were tremors on Twitter and Instagram.

You wonder what is possibly left for them when they finally grow up

The teens in Euphoria have covered drugs, self-harming, mental health issues, alcoholism, transgenderism and sexual situations their parents have yet to experience or even hear of, before prom night. You wonder what is possibly left for them when they finally grow up. But you get the impression they will grow up, and much of this will pass. Meanwhile, the debauchery, the hallucinatory dreams and masturbatory fantasies are a welcome departure from the current climate, when you see how the young (and particularly teenagers) are portrayed — and how they define themselves.

The pupils of East Highland high school are not weedy, infantilised victims triggered by wrong words and in need of a safe space, or faddish activists who take to the streets in support of causes for which they have no real conviction, commitment or understanding. The figures in Euphoria are no less vacuous, but at least they’re entertaining: there is swagger here, attitude and very black humour. They are self-obsessed, messed-up and unable to define themselves despite the infinite pronouns, genders and sexualities that mainstream society now provides them with. This was evident during the recent episode when the superb Barbie Ferreira (Kat) spent a long time saying absolutely nothing when asked to describe herself. “Illuminating” was the response from her boyfriend’s mother.

The humour is perhaps at its blackest with the recurring cameo appearance of something relatively new to the screen that increasingly has a central role in Euphoria: the tumescent penis. Both the phallus and its prosthetic stand-in, in varying states, put in more appearances in this show than in possibly anything seen on screen in the past. During a fantasy sequence in the first series, Rue conducts a tutorial on the art of the “dick pic”, illustrated by a slideshow of relevant images. “Some people say that eyes are the windows to your soul,” she informs the class. “I disagree. I think it’s your dick, and how you fucking photograph it.” Like I say, vacuous — yes, but somehow more refreshing than a teenager riffing on the vapid soundbites synonymous with a risible and redundant “wokeism”.

It’s been pointed out by a number of critics that Euphoria is every adult’s nightmare. There might be something in this, but it’s not necessarily the nightmare of everyone who can be classified as old — meaning, those old enough to be the parents of the actors, who while cast as teenagers are mostly in their mid-twenties. Some of us recall the shock value of early John Waters films, and later the output of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. When you add the gore of Tarantino to the mix, you can argue that although the older generation has never seen anything like Euphoria before, we certainly saw it coming.

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