TW – substance abuse, sexual violence
Euphoria is back with its long-awaited second series. The HBO show, which follows the lives and loves of a group of high school teenagers has already secured its place in contemporary pop culture after becoming the breakout hit of 2019. But before its sophomore season hit our screens, Euphoria’s star Zendaya issued a trigger warning to viewers, a sentiment which was echoed by her co-stars. In a statement put out on social media, she says “…I do want to reiterate to everyone that Euphoria is for mature audiences. This season, maybe even more so than the last, is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch. Please only watch if you feel comfortable…”
This is clearly a response to the pervading discourse surrounding the show: within the praise, there has been criticism of the show’s handling of sensitive topics including substance abuse, and its explicit and sexual content. There are countless scenes of graphic drug taking, as well as the brutal consequences of Rue (Zendaya)’s addiction, plus there are a host of sexual scenes, with extensive nudity that far exceeds any other show on television. This conversation has followed Euphoria since its inception – after all, the pilot episode was described by the National Post as a “pornographic after-school special with no other goal than to desensitise its audience”. But does this frank assessment ring true, or is there more to the show than this?
It is interesting to consider who Euphoria’s target audience is; there is undoubtedly a level of dissonance in the creation of a television show that is about teens but not for teens. Whilst it centres around adolescence, the content is much more explicit than what would be expected from your average ‘teen show’, and Zendaya is far from her bubbly Disney Channel roots in her dark and nuanced performance as Rue. The show’s creator Sam Levinson told IndieWire that even though he doesn’t think Euphoria should be watched by under 17s, he still believes that the show’s existence can still be valuable for so-called Gen Z, a group whose life experience is so detached from that of previous generations, hoping that “it creates a certain dialogue between parents and their kids”.
What is sometimes uncomfortable about the content’s explicit nature, particularly the sexual content, is the knowledge that we are watching teenagers and therefore minors in such vulnerable positions (even though the actors are all older than their characters). As well as this, it’s often difficult to watch so much teenage trauma, particularly the suffering of the teenage girls within Euphoria. Even if difficult topics such as revenge porn and sexual violence are handled sensitively by the show, the graphic scenes can feel gratuitous and excessive at times.
But although the show may sometimes get carried away with its desire to shock the audience, it never relies on this, and the content is always grounded in raw, truthful storytelling. This is most powerfully demonstrated in the Christmas specials that aired in December 2020; lockdowns in the US halted filming, so these two stand-alone pieces were created to bridge the gap between the two seasons. The episodes focused on conversations between Rue and her sponsor, Ali, and between Jules and her therapist, as the two girls each reflect on the events of the first season. These specials are both stunning pieces of television, with commanding yet vulnerable performances from Zendaya and Hunter Schafer. Whilst Euphoria is usually loud and brash in its delivery, these specials were quiet and contemplative in comparison. The episode which focuses on Rue is particularly stripped back, the hour comprising only of a scene between her and Ali in a diner on Christmas Eve. There is little explicit content, if any, yet their honest conversation provides the most candid and compelling exploration of the impact of addiction that Euphoria has ever produced.
Is Euphoria educating or scaring audiences through its content? Are the explicit scenes a bad influence on impressionable teens, or are they only reflecting what inevitably happens in real life? Maybe the answer lies somewhere between the two, or maybe it’s unfair to place so much responsibility on a single TV show. And maybe this debate is harmful in itself; Sydney Sweeney, who plays Cassie, has recently argued that the incessant discourse surrounding the sex scenes within the show have detracted from critical appreciation of her role, saying “I’m very proud of my work in Euphoria. I thought it was a great performance. But no one talks about it because I got naked”.
It is perhaps true that Euphoria’s uncensored and uninhibited take on teenage life, and the subsequent controversy it caused, is what attracted audiences to the show in the first place. However, what made audiences stay and continue to watch is its innovation, its depth, and its heart. The characters always feel real, even if the world they inhabit feels heightened and even dream-like. Questions surrounding the content will remain and so should be treated with nuance; I think Euphoria should be commended for its boldness, but with an important caveat that this show is not for everyone – and the trigger warnings posted by the cast are important in allowing audiences to decide for themselves.
– Erin Zammitt
Featured Image Source: Still Via Youtube