Now, I’m not the biggest Euphoria stan in the world—after all, I do have my very valid criticisms of it. The writing this season has scarce nuance, believability, what appears to be absent structure, is far too two-dimensional and woefully problematic at times. Don’t even get me started on the concerning rumours and comments making rounds about the show’s creator, Sam Levinson. For many watchers across the web, the show lacks depth, actual character development and relies too heavily on crass, unnecessary nudity that fetishises high schoolers. Not to mention swathes of followers find it wholly ‘unrealistic’.
The complaints are largely levelled against Levinson as he is the show’s writer, with The Daily Beast citing previous reasons as to why fans first turned on the HBO series. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, there is complete validity in those analyses. It is always important to cultivate critical thought when watching our favourite TV shows and movies—looking at the impact some of these creative decisions can have on the people watching them. I could write endlessly about these criticisms as I too, see them and believe them, particularly in the analysis of Euphoria’s dangerous sexualisation of, what are supposed to be, minors.
However, today I’m trying to find a different take among the many being made—which have often been mostly negative. Though I agree with the critique of Levinson’s at times questionable writing, and I’m in no way defending his choices, I do still have an attachment to the show—particularly Rue’s difficulty in coming to terms with her father’s death, an experience I know too well. Plus, there are some iconic one-liners and I’m obsessed with Alexa Demie and Barbie Ferreira. So, in an attempt to see a deeper meaning in an aspect of the show, I have a theory as to why it seems so incredibly unrealistic.
When the unrealistic nature of Euphoria is discussed, it is often about the nature of the subjects mentioned—meaning the lives of the teenagers we follow in the story. We all say to ourselves, ‘Me at 16 was a totally different picture’. Another factor—perhaps the one that keeps audiences coming back for more—is the aesthetic: iconic fashion and makeup, stunningly beautiful cinematography and the haunting soundtracks of the show’s resident composer Labrinth is enough for you to be drawn back in.
I think that both these elements are influenced by Rue. Think about it, she’s the narrator. A large chunk of the show is written and detailed through her eyes. In fact, she stated in the very first episode of season one that she is not the most reliable narrator, and even Levinson doubled down on this aspect stating, “Rue’s perspective is very much Rue’s perspective, and she’s not always accurate in her retelling of things.” There are elements of the show where Rue imagines things as they would have happened, but didn’t actually. An easy example of this is Cassie’s recent viral meltdown in the school toilets about her outfit, she screams about her relationship with Nate (a secret not yet out in the open) but then it is revealed that she doesn’t actually say anything. It was Rue describing what she thought Cassie would have wanted to say at that moment.
And of course, let’s not forget that Rue is addicted to drugs. Her version of the events are not just biased but affected by her drug abuse. Therein could lie the answer to the unrealistic nature of the show—the situations that arise may be a result of a still drug-addled future Rue, who is describing the warped memories of her past. Maybe Ashtray wasn’t actually 10 years old or maybe there wasn’t so much nudity and explicit activity—we can only hope. It’s safe to say whether this theory has merit or not, it won’t be enough for Levinson to get away scot-free.
We’ve already seen short-hand versions of this and how her momentary highs are depicted. The most viral is the ending scene of the first season in the segment ‘All For Us’. The absolutely brilliant song married with a musical ensemble of dancers, that symbolised Rue’s relapse, was the making of a monumental finale. These obscure, magical scenes—take the latest ‘Lover Montage’—are often more rooted in artistry than they are in reality. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to assume, therefore, that this spans the entire show (or most of it, at least) as a representation of an under-the-influence storyteller.
Another element is that she’s really the only one who doesn’t dress as overtly as the rest of the female characters. Apart from a few rare examples, Rue is often seen sporting dark, mid-range colours like brown and the infamous burgundy hoodie. Could this be another nod to the fact that she, herself, is rooted in reality while her surroundings are a result of hallucination? Possibly, since it’s technically not the present if she’s narrating it. Her narration could all just be one really long high.
While writing this, I felt like it reminded me of something. And it did: the Friends fan theory about Phoebe Buffay. Need a refresher? Well, the theory/fan-proposed alternate ending is that Phoebe is actually homeless, stoned and imagining the five people in the café—Joey, Monica, Ross, Chandler and Rachel—as her friends. Depressing, right? Perhaps there is no real truth to this Euphoria theory but it does make for a more interesting watch, whether you like the show or not.
OMG, are you caught up with Euphoria? I’m willing to bet my knock-off Prada that’s not the first time you’ve been asked this question in the last few days. Back for a second season, HBO’s teen drama is saturating our timelines faster than you can say Omicron and has cemented itself as the latest must-watch TV show.
If you’ve seen it then perhaps you’ll understand why it is such a success. Euphoria’s vibrant characters, exhilarating storylines and intoxicatingly sexy aesthetic make the perfect recipe for a hit show among gen Z. But there’s a more complex reason why we love it so much, beyond the obvious production value.
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Euphoria belongs to that trite yet inevitably addictive canon of the ‘High School drama’. From Grease to Glee, for decades we haven’t been able to get enough of the stuff. But have you ever stopped to wonder why the lives of students are so fascinating to us?
I’d argue it’s a matter of fantasy. Shows like Euphoria give us an embellished reflection of our high school years, showing us teenage life with adult freedoms.
This is plain to see in the recent ‘And why aren’t you in uniform?’ trend on TikTok. These videos see users dressed in casual hoodies and jeans, only to ‘remember they go to Euphoria High’ and reappear in a sexy I.AM.GIA two-piece and stripper pleasers. These exaggerated impersonations of the show’s fiercely iconic Maddy Perez (played by Alexa Demie) affectionately mock the notion of being allowed to wear the outfits to school that the Euphoria characters don so casually.
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Don’t get me wrong, Euphoria’s audience acknowledges that the characters’ lifestyles are unrealistic—but that’s exactly the appeal. Maddy, Jules and Cassie are playing out our fantasies of looking our absolute best at a time in our lives when our self-consciousness is at its most crippling. Don’t even get me started on my girl Rue…
Alongside fashion, characters in our beloved high school dramas are shown to be as romantically preoccupied as some of us dreamt we were back in those hormone-charged years. Burgeoning sexuality has been a core theme of teen dramas since the 60s, with the likes of Rebel Without a Cause and, again, Grease celebrating the rise of youth culture and the rejection of pre-war sexual conservatism.
Angsty teenage years are defined by the desire to enjoy these mature freedoms. As was the case with Glee, Euphoria shows us teen characters performed by actors several years older and gorgeous. They wield the power we strived to possess in our teen years and we can’t help but admire them for it. The contrast of their cultivated style and allure with the green high school environment gives us the fantasy we unknowingly craved all along.
While Euphoria and similar shows are pedallers of dazzling fantasy, they are also vehicles of that oh-so-needed catharsis. At first, we might label the high school drama appeal as merely nostalgia; a rose-tinted reminiscence of the ‘best times of our lives’. But those formative years are often when we experience traumas that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
As we shed the skin of prepubescence, the skin of adolescence beneath is raw and scar-prone. Watching these traumas happen to someone else in dramas creates enough distance to make the experience cathartic and almost purging. This is where fantasy comes into play.
Exaggeration and embellishment in these productions act as a cushion against the harsh truths we are revisiting. Watching Quinn Fabray get kicked out by her parents for getting pregnant in Glee is made somewhat easier when you’re singing along to Avril Lavigne’s ‘Keep Holding On’ minutes later.
Trivial problems feel like the end of the world when you’re a teenager, so serious problems are truly earth-shattering. Watching characters experience these emotions on-screen, among the glamour, validates the impact events had on us at the time. They also remind us that we still experience these same traumas in our adult lives, and although the sting of adolescence may be dimmed, we still relate to them all the same.
Take the most recent episode of Euphoria (season two, episode two), for example, where we see Kat struggling with self-loathing and body dysmorphia. Sadly, toxic body standards are a common issue, especially for cis-women, trans-women and genderqueer people at that age. Audiences relate to the memory of such feelings, but also because they are still dealing with similar events in their current age. The same goes for the depictions of abusive relationships, depression and drug addiction.
While for many of us our teen years were more popping oxytetracycline than OxyContin, addiction is a worrying possibility for us all, if not a reality. Teen dramas reflect our lives, past and present; they depict both the worrying realities and the dreaded possibilities.
Euphoria shows us who we wish we were at high school, and perhaps who we still wish we were now. Gloriously gritty and sexy fantasy is an addictive escapism, so it’s no wonder we tune in to the show each week. And why shouldn’t we? Teenage dreams dwell as long as teenage traumas.