“I know you’re not allowed to say it, but drugs are kinda cool.” So says Rue, the heroine and admittedly unreliable narrator of HBO’s new teen drama Euphoria, confessing as we see her enjoy a particularly potent high. Moments later, we see a flashback to the near-fatal overdose she suffered a few months earlier, which prompts Rue to admit, “It’s actually a very narrow window of cool.”
Euphoria, adapted by Sam Levinson from an Israeli drama, operates within a similarly narrow window of cool. Its underage characters engage in a torrent of risky behavior around drugs, sex, violence and more that feels extreme even by Peak TV standards. Rue’s new best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), is trans and spends her nights having anonymous, sometimes violent, sex with closeted older men. Their full-figured classmate Kat (Barbie Ferreira) is horrified to learn that video of her losing her virginity has been uploaded to PornHub — then intrigued when she realizes she can make bank on the fetishes of creeps online. Football star Nate (Jacob Elordi) hides an explosive temper and a calculating mind that makes him far more dangerous than your average bully. And that’s just scratching the defiantly fetid surface.
There’s a risk of a show like this trying so hard to be cool that it’s anything but. And there are moments where Euphoria seems to cynically lean into fearmongering about teen recklessness. (Nate in particular is a collection of various overheated teen-melodrama clichés in bad need of retirement.) But the direction by Augustine Frizzell and Levinson is visually striking throughout, full of moments lit to look both menacing and intoxicating.
They pull excellent performances from their cast. Zendaya, a former Disney darling, is following a tradition of onetime child stars tackling more explicit roles to transition into adulthood, but her work goes so much deeper than Rue snorting lines. Even as Rue’s scamming everyone, Zendaya always makes her seem vulnerable and just barely concealing her pain. (Her dry, unaffected line readings breathe enormous life into voiceover that could easily play as clumsy exposition. Even when Rue warns us not to always believe her, she seems sincere and welcoming.) Schafer and Ferreira are superb covering relatively untrod ground. And as Cassie, a girl with an unwanted sexual reputation, Sydney Sweeney (Sharp Objects, Everything Sucks!) continues to establish herself as one of the best young actors working today.
The first few episodes are working overtime to troll, only sometimes hitting that narrow window Rue tells us about. There’s a stunning montage in the second episode where Rue, struggling to improvise a class monologue about what she did over summer break, flashes through a series of randomly ordered family memories that are alternately happy and angry. She can’t decide whether to emphasize the good or bad parts, and just shuts down. It’s a question that Euphoria struggles with, too. But by the third hour, Levinson figures out how to keep things just light enough to make the more intense moments stand out, rather than feeling like part of one long wallow. There’s a clever subplot about Kat seeking advice from juvenile drug dealer Ashtray (Javon Walton) on how to use Bitcoin to collect from her skeevy new fans. Humor can be a powerful weapon in a show this heavy. The more it’s used here, the wider the window of cool becomes. Not everything on Euphoria works, but when a moment hits, there’s a rush to it not unlike the one its characters keep chasing.
Euphoria debuts June 16th. I’ve seen the first four episodes.