We’re Asking Too Much of ‘Euphoria’
There’s a fear in our current era of TV viewership of getting duped. We all have our low-stakes guilty pleasures and mindless, background noise re-watches, but when we uncork the wine and put our phones down to strap into something, we want it to be worth it. We want to be a part of the cultural conversation or to tune out, even just to be engaged — and whether or not it’s a feel-good comedy or a doom-laden drama, we want our choice to be validated so that when it’s time to go to bed we don’t feel as though one of our few precious distractions from the relentless outside world was wasted.
Euphoria offers all of that. It’s a massive cultural hit; its second season which wrapped on Sunday averaged over 16 million viewers per episode — the highest average viewership of any HBO series in the past 18 years besides the final season of Game of Thrones — it’s compelling, and it manages the difficult feat of feeling weighted by consequence despite oftentimes being completely untethered from reality. (Did it make sense during the finale when a conversation between Rue and Lexi that took place after the play somehow made its way into the production? No, but it was affecting).
It’s also incredibly polarizing.
It doesn’t take a Nancy Drew level of investigative commitment to find countless articles deriding the show’s writing and hyper-sexualization alongside an equal number of pieces praising its performances and aesthetic. This makes sense; a show that by design seeks to evoke a visceral response is never going to have universal appeal or even unanimous approval from its devoted viewers.
The problem for Euphoria is that rather than approaching it for what it is — a cinematically mesmerizing high school story of family trauma and paralleled addiction, oftentimes messy and sometimes gratuitous; that original fear of getting duped forces us away from nuance. There’s no mutual exclusivity inherent to a series that dazzles with camerawork and sound design but lacks in narrative continuity and structure; that presents one character with nuanced clarity and another with clumsy fluidity, but our decision of whether or not to invest time in a show morphs into pseudo-tribalism once we choose which side of the line we fall on.
For a series in the era of peak TV to be worthy, it has to be one of the best things we’ve seen all year; conversely, for it to not be deserving of our time implies a critical flaw. In the case of Euphoria, those rules dictate we’re either embracing the series as a high-school reincarnation of The Wire or rejecting it as an auteur's vanity project trojan horsing the hallowed grounds of HBO’s Sunday night programming as an x-rated version of The O.C.
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is in the dungeon awaiting his trial by combat when Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) comes to visit him. They talk about the time he visited King’s Landing as a child, and Oberyn explains how he felt when, after all the gruesome details he’d been told about him, Tyrion was revealed to be a normal-looking baby. “Your head was a bit large. Your arms and legs were a bit small, but no claw. No red eye. No tail between your legs. Just a tiny pink cock. We didn’t try to hide our disappointment. ‘That’s not a monster,’ I told Cersei. ‘That’s just a baby.’”
That’s how I feel about Euphoria, tiny pink cocks abound.
Is it the best thing I’ve ever watched? On the same night and network as its finale, I watched Walton Goggins lift a newborn baby from a porta-potty so no, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s good, sometimes very good — I don’t see a world where Euphoria becomes a pantheon HBO show but Zendaya’s performance as Rue this season is as good as any the network has featured, and the series’ relentless questioning of our capacity for radical empathy remains singular. I doubt even Euphoria’s most strident defenders feel comfortable with the way characters like Kat (Barbie Ferreira), McKay (Algee Smith), and Jules (Hunter Schafer) were managed throughout the second season, and the show’s stammering inability to provide its central antagonist (Jacob Elordi) an appropriate level of emotional complexity remains mystifying — but not every show has to be everything.
Euphoria’s second season took the proverbial suitcase full of drugs, turned it into cash, and spent it on set pieces and music rights that feature-length film directors would drool over; and in the process struck a few chords of emotional resonance that kept us coming back.
Maybe that’s enough.