Euphoria’s Emotional Realism
Why hyperbole is the only realistic thing when you’re a teen.
When I was seventeen, on a cold February day, I began watching the British TV show Skins. I remember sitting in bed with my iPod touch propped up on my knees, watching its cast of high school friends hook up, do minor crimes, and pop drugs like Tic Tacs before sneaking back into their uniquely dysfunctional homes in the soft blue dawn. Around the same time, I started watching Gossip Girl, a succession of high-stakes Hamptons day parties and fashion shows set in a social milieu in which owning a loft in Dumbo was a sign of poverty. There was nothing in common between the lives of the characters in these aughts teen dramas and my suburban New Jersey existence, other than the fact that we were all human and were supposed to go to school. Still, there was something in them that felt true, enough to keep me watching.
Euphoria premiered on HBO, a show in the glamorous, emotionally overheated teen drama tradition created by Sam Levinson. And, like many teen shows before it, it quickly occasioned questions about whether the show’s depictions of teen sex, drug use, and baroque forms of cruelty were realistic. The night before the premiere, Zendaya—who plays the show’s protagonist, Rue—posted a warning on Instagram that the show is “a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety, and the difficulties of navigating life today. There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch, and can be triggering.” The New York Times’ statistics-crunching column The Upshot published an article headlined “The ‘Euphoria’ Teenagers Are Wild. But Most Real Teenagers Are Tame,” citing data from the CDC and the University of Michigan on declining teen drug and alcohol use and sexual activity. Vice asked a caucus of ten members of Gen Z if the show was realistic; several said that despite the show’s stylization and maximalism, it got things right that other teen shows had gotten wrong.
This line of inquiry misses something inherent to the teen soap opera: that the tension between its overt hyperbole and the subtler, private drama of real teen experience is what makes the genre great. “We established early on that each scene ought to be an interpretation of reality or a representation of an emotional reality,” Levinson said in an interview with New York magazine. “I’m not interested in realism. I’m interested in an emotional realism.” Marcell Rév, Euphoria’s cinematographer, told The Hindu that “we wanted to have something that was grounded in reality but, at the same time…wanted to give teenagers a show of what they imagine for themselves, how they would see themselves in a show.”
Thus the world of Euphoria appears almost real, but not quite. The most obvious example is the show’s makeup, designed by Doniella Davy: Jules (Hunter Schafer) wears neon blooms of eyeshadow under neat geometric arcs framing her lids; Maddy (Alexa Demie) armors her brows in a dense line of rhinestones. And costume designer Heidi Bivens often dresses the cast in luxury alternative fashion analogues to teen clothes. In the first episode, Rue wears a grungy, oversized tie-dye tee by Gosha Rubchinskiy; Jules has a girly Tropical Rob bra, alime green Lou Dallas crop top, and at least four Eckhaus Latta tees. Maddy attends a school dance in an incredible crystal dress that bares as much nipple asRihanna’s CDFA Award gown, and, like Bianca from Ten Things I Hate About You, owns a Prada backpack.
Plus, Euphoria is lit in Contemporary Teen Colors—neon pinks, hazy deep purple, the hot yolk yellow of filter-boosted late afternoon sunlight—and was shot mostly on soundstages; the name or region of the suburban town where the show takes place is never given. Far from the shaky, straight-to-camera style of Snapchat or Youtube, Euphoria’s cameras glide on tracks or dollies. In one shot, a rotating hallway was built to create the effect of the room spinning after Rue does two bumps of something white in the bathroom. A two-minute-long tracking shot in the season’s fourth episode that swoops between its main cast at a carnival reminded me, somewhat absurdly, of a five-minute single take of the evacuation at Dunkirk in the 2007 film Atonement.
But this surreal maximalism applied to common experiences—getting dressed, doing makeup, causing chaos at the town carnival, receiving an unsolicited dick pic—is the point. It gives everyday life the dramatic weight; it honors the drama and deep sadness of being a teen, doing everything for the first time and testing the magnitude of different kinds of mistakes. The show’s central plot, which involves a Grindr equivalent, several assaults, and revenge porn blackmail, is ridiculous, but Euphoria’s strongest quality is its tone, the way the storytelling incorporates not only Rue’s addiction, but her anxiety and depression. Being a depressed teen may look grimy and uneventful, but it doesn’t feel that way; it feels world-rending and vertiginous. For some people, it feels like a spinning hallway, smeared glitter eyeliner, and a bilious green light.
If you asked me when I was fourteen what piece of media felt like the truest representation of my emotions, I probably would have cited the music video for “Helena” by My Chemical Romance, the one where the dead woman climbs out of her coffin and does a ballet. When I first saw it, I was stunned: the video was the most extravagant, defiant, hilarious expression of sadness I had ever seen. It was the biggest sadness in the world. Euphoria, of course, contains more nuance and range and original ideas, but I suspect the appeal is similar: sometimes, you need to see the largest feelings in the world given the space they deserve.