Hunter Schafer (left) and Zendaya
Photo: HBO
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HBO’s Euphoria promises right away to delve into the dark side of Gen Z. It stars Zendaya—who has to carry much too much of the show—as Rue, a troubled teen who starts the series with an overdose and still spends most of her time after chasing the happiness she only feels when she’s high. She has a new best friend named Jules (played magnificently by Hunter Schafer) who she’s maybe in love with or maybe addicted to. She has a little sister she adores, a mom who doesn’t quite understand her. She has classmates who fuck and do drugs and send nudes and hate themselves and hurt each other. Outside of a few poignant character moments, Euphoria tries so hard to be provocative that it doesn’t stir up much at all. It’s a gorgeous, empty thing that mistakes external beauty for inner depth.

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Throughout the first stretch of the series, the question of who exactly this series is for needles the mind. It’s about Gen Z but certainly isn’t aimed at them. And that’s not necessarily a recipe for undoing—plenty of teen shows are made for adults or at least for teens and adults in tandem. But there’s an unnerving sense throughout Euphoria that this is a kaleidoscope into modern teen life framed by and packaged for older viewers who become voyeurs of these teens. Look how much they swear, they have sex, they get high, the show practically screams over and over and over. It doesn’t feel edgy so much as a razor’s edge indiscriminately slicing through the air, targetless and wild.

Voyeurism is baked into Euphoria. The director’s eye is sharp but almost too present. Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) shoots these teens with immersive stylization and has the most fun with it whenever someone’s on drugs. It’s often nice to look at, but a TV show shouldn’t feel like a music video this much. And voyeurism is a connective theme in the stories, too. Kat is a self-assured teen who’s wildly popular on Tumblr but not so much in real life, and when a boy leaks a sex tape of her she sees it as an opportunity for another kind of internet fame, becoming a cam girl in secret. Jules cruises on Grindr, putting herself in some potentially harmful situations with much older men. We learn that she was watched oppressively as a kid, sent to a psychiatric ward without her consent because she was self-harming. Nate, the resident bad boy who is perhaps the most one-note character in a sea of mostly one-note characters, is watching Jules, too, for reasons that seem to change from scene to scene.

A lot of the best writing, it should be noted, involves Jules and the very casual way her identity as trans is presented. Storylines that center her manage to do the most compelling work, and her friendship with Rue is one of the only well developed relationship dynamics in the first four hours of the series. In fact, it’s the series’ saving grace. But the flashbacks to Jules’ childhood are somewhat undercut by framing them with Rue’s narration instead of just centering Jules and her experience. There’s a removal to the way Euphoria unfolds that works against even some of its best parts.

Because after all, we’re told these various narratives through Rue—always through Rue. She’s the keeper of all the show’s secrets and stories. Therein lies the other glaring issue with Euphoria. So much of it is told in voiceover that it never feels like we’re fully living in it. It’s a relief when two characters actually speak to each other for more than a handful of lines, because it’s a rarity. Those gorgeous, often haunting sequences that make up the show’s visual storytelling are often scored by Rue’s lilting thoughts.

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There’s a direct reference to My So-Called Life in one episode that almost seems laughably misguided. That was a show that knew how to employ the inner thoughts of its central teen without becoming dull or overwrought. That’s a show that lived in the fucked-up, often heightened sensation of what it is to feel like a lonely, misunderstood teen. Euphoria wants to live there, too, but it’s too busy crafting its funhouse of darkness and teenage existentialism to ever feel fully alive.