The Addictive Chills and Thrills of “Euphoria”

The second season of the hit HBO show is a thing of beauty—a stylized, heightened, art-directed fantasia of a dark suburbia where really bad things look really good.
Pink and purple portraits of the characters in Euphoria arranged in a group with Rue  largest at the front.
“Euphoria” is not a show to watch for deep dives into its protagonists’ psychologies—counterintuitive for a show where so much circles around addiction and mental health.Illustration by Rachelle Baker

The teen drama “Euphoria,” which is now in its second season, airs once a week: a lucky thing, since even a single episode of the series can feel like a binge. The first episode of Season 2 contains one erect penis and two flaccid ones, a drug-dealing grandmother in hot pants, a girl shooting up in a car, a twelve-year-old with face tattoos, some bathroom coitus, a near-overdose on opioids—thwarted by a snort of Adderall—and a baby eating cigarette butts. This is about as close as television gets to endurance art. A grab bag of music-video-style moments, satirical pastiches, druggy fantasy sequences, quasi-pornographic sexual encounters, and high-octane action scenes, “Euphoria” is a stomach-turning, hectic, maximalist experience: an audacious mess that, if not always pleasurable, is impossible to dismiss or look away from.

The show, which is based on an Israeli series of the same name, was created in 2019 by Sam Levinson, for HBO. Levinson is thirty-seven, and the son of the film director Barry Levinson. He struggled with drug dependency in his youth, and seems to have converted his personal experience into the show’s operatic vision. The series is narrated by the seventeen-year-old Rue, played by the former Disney child star Zendaya, tangle-haired and pie-eyed in the role. Rue is a pill addict fresh out of rehab, following an overdose, but, as she insists in the show’s pilot, she has “no intention of staying clean.” Her father died when she was fourteen, compounding a host of mental-health issues that she had been struggling with—and receiving medication for—since early childhood: O.C.D., generalized anxiety disorder, possible bipolar disorder. But is the source of Rue’s troubles her own psychic makeup, or, simply, the way we live now? “I was born three days after 9/11,” she drones affectlessly, as images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers play on a delivery-room TV, in a flashback. “I know it all seems sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system, nor did I fuck it up.”