Zendaya Carries Unsettling, Gorgeous Euphoria

 vanityfair.com  06/14/2019 14:16:14   Sonia Saraiya

Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in Euphoria.

Courtesy of HBO.

“To be honest, I’m not always the most reliable narrator,” says Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old drug addict, in the middle of the first episode of Euphoria. She’s just snorted something in the bathroom of a crowded house party, and while staggering back downstairs, the hallway hurtled around her, Inception-like, so that she walked onto the walls and the ceiling, dodging picture frames and light fixtures, until the floor regained its gravity. In voiceover, Rue has been telling us the story of this one party, interrupting herself with bitter digressions about how fucked-up it is to be young right now. She’s self-pitying, sure, but her logic is hard to argue with: active-shooter drills, climate change, the pervasive sexual pressure of porn. It’s a mess—or so it seems. As she told us, she’s not a reliable narrator—just a damaged, perceptive, charismatic one.

Euphoria, from writer/director Sam Levinson, is already controversial. On one hand is the show’s wall of cool-cred talent: executive producers Drake and Future; lead actor and fellow E.P. Zendaya, a former Disney star with incredible style, a Marvel universe role, and 56 million Instagram followers; co-lead Hunter Schafer, a model in her first on-screen performance; and a supporting cast including model/actress Barbie Ferreira, comedy scion Maude Apatow, Wrinkle in Time star Storm Reid, and The Kissing Booth’s breakout heartthrob Jacob Elordi, who is almost always shirtless.

On the other is the scandalizing behavior these high schoolers get up to—drugs, sex, alcohol—which is conflated with shock that the show would depict high school bodies so explicitly. And, it should be said, so beautifully: Euphoria’s vision of teenage dissipation, even when it goes awry, is shockingly gorgeous, a color-saturated vision of California youth that picks up on deep purples, candy pinks, and flat, orangey haze. It’s a provocative juxtaposition—a bleak view of over-drugged, hypersexed American youth, but depicted in a way that makes it all seem romantic, enviable, and apparently free, even when underage characters (played by adult actors) take their tops off, onscreen, for teasing girls, leering boys, and, of course, the camera.

There’s some handwringing to be done here. This is a show running on premium cable, the subscribers of which tend to not be 16-year-old kids but their paranoid parents and grandparents. At times, it seems as if Euphoria is doing one of two reprehensible things—either selling vulnerable young people on the joys of drugs, or dishing out nightmares for their parents to ruminate over. That Zendaya came out of the Disney machine adds a thrill of transgression to her performance, which holds the entire production together—grounded, self-effacing, charming, and so assured.

But I give Euphoria more credit than mere sensationalism. The show evinces real curiosity about these young people—and real sympathy for their behavior, even at its riskiest. What makes anyone curious about fentanyl, let alone a 17-year-old? What is going through a girl’s mind when she shows up at a motel to meet a stranger from a dating app? Euphoria attempts to build not just these characters, but the social environment they live in.

One of the funniest lines from the first episode is an interstitial cutaway in which Kat (Ferreira) confesses to Jules (Schafer) that she’s a virgin. Jules, with turquoise dots of eyeliner starkly contrasting against the pale skin of her face, slams her locker door shut in horror. “Bitch, this isn’t the 80s! You need to catch a dick.” They’re teenagers: No amount of measured sex education stands up to the coolest girl you know raising her eyebrows in judgement. No amount of parental validation weighs quite as much as anonymous likes on a hot selfie.

And cannily, Euphoria weighs in on its own shocking moments again and again. It’s a problem when a series is more premise than plot, and Euphoria is a little guilty of sacrificing forward momentum out of a perpetual need to set the mood. But when the show circles back on the same inciting incidents, it feels as if it’s mimicking the circularity of trauma, which sends us back to the source of our pain over and over again.

The most notable example is an early sexual encounter between Jules, a teenage trans girl, and Cal (Eric Dane), a middle-aged family man. It’s violent, in a way that seems to be what Jules and Cal both crave, but consent—insofar as a 17-year-old on a dating app can give consent—does not make the scene easier to watch. Euphoria later revisits the moment from different angles, in ways both painful and illuminating; Rue, who is narrating, is trying to understand and come to terms with Jules’ erotic self, her desires and compulsions. It’s rare to see a show engage with a fantasy perceived as ugly and dark, and stay with it—to neither judge nor ignore it, but rather digest it. It gives the audience a chance to try to understand Jules, whose cotton-candy hair and girly bicycle belie a fearless, plucky soul willing to be herself at all costs.

Euphoria makes the crises and triumphs of being a teenager into operatic drama—the kind of drama that we are all susceptible to, at some point or another, but are especially vulnerable to when we’re drenched with hormones, free of most responsibilities, and terrified of what other people might think of us. Mary McNamara, observing the differences between the high school experiences in Euphoria and Booksmart, writes that pop culture keeps returning to high school because those four years mark the threshold to adulthood—an awakening, a rite of passage, that is “a perpetual oscillation of mood best described with hyperbole.”

In Rue’s mind, which is frequently altered by drugs, she is surrounded by hot teenagers obsessed with sex, going at it in pools, other people’s bedrooms, and via webcam. It is a bit much—and as she told us in that rotating hallway, she really can’t be trusted. What matters is only what this world seems like to her. In response, and especially during the nighttime scenes, Euphoria takes on a plasticky sheen of artificiality, a gloss that is a little too TV-friendly, as if the characters are constructed out of props. It’s an unreality that reminded me of Riverdale, which is to say it reminded me of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which also revolved around the dark experiences of high school girls. Twin Peaks also played with artifice and reality in the context of high school. Except where Laura Palmer was killed—so that her voice was taken out of the story—the girls in Euphoria, and especially Rue, are telling the story themselves.

It’s fascinating. These badly behaving teens, who operate with minimal to no supervision from their parents, are jumping off the edge of adolescence into adulthood without so much as a helmet. The consequences are awful, occasionally catastrophic; the girls, in particular, endure so much pain, humiliation, and violence in the pursuit of things that make them feel good. Their reckless freedom is not, exactly, to be encouraged. But to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, they do “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars"—a line perennially seductive to teenagers, as much as it is tiresome and nihilistic to anyone older.

It will be educational to see how Euphoria closes out the season, whether it finds a way to undercut its own romance with self-destruction. The most difficult element to stomach is how it frames these teen experiences, as if every 17-year-old has a drug dealer with face tattoos, or is ready and willing to have sex with the next person they encounter. Levinson, the son of Hollywood heavyweight Barry Levinson, wrote Rue as a version of himself, putting his own experiences with teen addiction into her mouth. (He said at the ATX TV Festival that he was institutionalized four times by the time he was Rue’s age.) But class, even in a subtle way, is absent from episodes of Euphoria I’ve seen. Specificity might have helped Euphoria be less provocative—these aren’t your kids, they’re some kids—but frankly, that would have been besides the point. Euphoria wants to provoke. That’s what the cool kids do.

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