“Euphoria” brings empathy and coolness to new generation

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“Euphoria” brings empathy and coolness to new generation

Alex Holmes

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Every generation believes the next is just a bunch of lazy hooligans who don’t know what they’re doing. There’s often a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling, because each generation thinks the next is the worst generation ever. All of that toxicity may be even worse nowadays because our generation has experienced more sweeping changes in our day-to-day lives than ever before. 

Showrunner Sam Levinson’s new HBO drama “Euphoria”, about a group of high school students, doesn’t say “We know better”, but instead seems to say, “We know you have problems, too.” Levinson (who also wrote, directed, and produced) doesn’t completely understand high school life these days, but hits closer to the mark than most other shows.

“Euphoria” doesn’t have one overarching plot. It follows a group of high school students through their drug-induced, sexually-infused, stressful forays into the adult world. To the uninformed observer, it may seem exploitative of its subject matter, but on closer inspection Levinson uses a creative lens to look at modern teenage life through empathetic eyes.

That empathy is the driving force of the show. Levinson doesn’t portray only one side of every character. They are all multi-dimensional. In its first episode, characters start out as stereotypes: you have the jocks, the drug addicts, the slut-shamed girls, and the LGBTQ characters. From these stock characters evolve multi-faceted, real people with real problems. 

The main jock is Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), who hides his insecurities and messed up family behind a facade of mean-guy toughness. A local drug dealer called Fez (Angus Cloud) becomes a likable drop out who doesn’t mean to hurt anybody. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) tries to escape her sexual history with a new boyfriend who doesn’t entirely believe in her. And that’s not to mention that the main character, Rue (Zendaya), is a biracial, bisexual drug addict. 

The show sometimes feels achingly real, and at others, like an implausible fantasy (or nightmare). Despite the amount of drugs, sex, and number of nudes taken in the show, teenagers in 2019 are actually considered “the cautious generation” according to The New York Times. So it’s fair to say that the show plays up real issues only for effect (we know the internet is a terrible place full of creepy dudes, but do we have to know just how creepy?).

Either way, the mechanics don’t really matter. Much like the drugs the characters so frequently partake in, a television program injects the viewer with a larger dosage of drama than real life often provides. In short, it is exaggerated. 

Whether or not that exaggeration can achieve a certain feeling or mood predicates the success or failure of a show. And in “Euphoria”, Levinson proves to be quite successful at creating feeling, mood, and atmosphere through his exaggerated visuals, lyrical swagger, and entertaining playfulness.

All of his characters have problems and grapple with their identities in an ever-changing world. That may be the most realistic (and timely) aspect of Levinson’s show. That characters like Rue and Jules (a transgender girl played by trans actress Hunter Schafer) can exist so freely on a more or less mainstream television show is incredible on its own.

“Euphoria” may not be a perfect show, but its willingness to bring up otherwise taboo subjects in the cool, neon-lit world the characters inhabit leaves its entertained viewers with something to think about after the credits roll. 

As I’m sure Levinson can attest to, everyone was a teenager at some point or another. Each generation is going to face new challenges, but it’s up to the previous generation to empathize with and understand the new one. In “Euphoria”, it’s mostly the thought that counts.