HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ is The Best Extreme Teen Drama Since ‘Skins’

It's more than just the show that featured 80 dicks in one scene: 'Euphoria' is the best new show of 2019.

Euphoria HBO

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By now, you might know Euphoria as the show that featured 30 different penises in one scene.

This fact incited a mini media storm: Esquire called it “unnecessarily gratuitous”, The Ringer asked if it was the most male nudity on TV ever, elsewhere on the internet reports swirled that actually, the original cut for the scene featured another 80 dicks. Across the pond, the NZ Herald even stepped up to dub Euphoria the “most extreme teen series yet”.

It’s extreme, sure, but the dicks really aren’t the most provocative part of Euphoria.

The show centres on Rue (played by the mononymous Zendaya), a 17-year-old drug addict, fresh out of rehab and flailing into her senior year at high school. Around her, friends and not-so-friends variously struggle with abuse, body image and revenge porn: they take nudes, they cam, they arrange hook-ups with much older men on Grindr.

Episode by episode, we learn a bit more about what drives and torments each of them.

You’d be right in thinking that sounds a bit like a couple of other legendary teen TV shows. If Degrassi captured how bleak coming of age during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s could be and Skins caught us in that wonderful pre-iPhone, all-American Apparel era, Euphoria is turning the lens on the first generation to grow up online.

(And in a full circle moment, Drake, who famously acted in the Next Generation reboot of Degrassi, serves as an executive producer for Euphoria.)

Euphoria is a worthy successor to both of those shows and it’s so compelling that it counts everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Halsey and The Black Madonna among its fans. It’s whip smart, often funny, sometimes sad and, hands down, the best new show of 2019.

Finally, TV Is Good Again

It says a lot about the state of television in 2019 that it’s genuinely surprising when a show is good.

The golden era of TV is over, the glut of mediocrity upon us and even the titles that started out strong (ahem, Handmaid’s Tale) have mostly lost the plot. But with Euphoria, HBO might have started clawing back its return to form. This isn’t just guilty pleasure good — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but top tier, prestige television.

Part of the show’s genius is in how well it carries off themes like statutory rape, addiction and domestic violence. Given that subject matter, it could have easily come out overwrought or cheesy (remember the US remake of Skins? It wasn’t good). But it doesn’t.

In fact, Euphoria does perhaps an even better job at handling meaty topics than Skins or Degrassi before it. There’s no sermonising or after-school-special vibes here; things just unfold without a moral to the story or neat, tidy ending to the episode.

Or, sometimes, the show has fun with the extremity of its topics and delivers hyper-stylised sequences, like lead character Rue’s powerpoint presentation on what separates a horrifying dick pic from a merely terrifying one.

Yes, some moments push the limits of believability (an orgasm after taking MDMA? Lol, sure) but it never crosses the line into eye-roll territory. Even with the dramatic, high-stakes plot it concocts, everything in the Euphoria world manages to feel authentic.

Identity Is Not A Spectacle

It also doesn’t make a spectacle out of identity.

One of the main characters is trans, a fact only revealed three episodes in — not in a “gotcha” twist moment, but a natural progression of the character’s backstory. Likewise, the queer relationship at the centre of the show isn’t done in back-patting, look-at-how-progressive-we-are way, but treated with the same normality as every other romantic relationship.

Getting to watch it unfold is one of the best parts of the show.

Euphoria also does a great job of capturing the utter poison of toxic masculinity and misogyny (the monologue in which a male character tells a teenage girl that no one values her for anything other than sex will hit you in the guts). And that scene with the 30 dicks? It doesn’t feel like it’s designed to shock. It’s actually a very clever, gender-flipped nod to the lingering shots in the locker room scene from Carrie.

Also: bonus points to Euphoria for being possibly the first show ever to depict texting the way people actually text. This is such a small, simple thing that shouldn’t feel like such a triumph and yet, it does.

One For the Aesthetic Generation

It’s no accident that Euphoria might also be the best looking show out there.

The fact that pretty much every shot in the show looks like it could wind up as a still on Instagram (and many of them have) is straight up bait for the aesthetic-obsessed teens it wants as an audience. Everything is drenched in dreamy rose reds and vivid blues, or cast in a woozy, soft focus glow.

While teen shows of the past have been all about the clothes (The O.C., Gossip Girl), it’s the make-up here that seems to take centre stage — the characters don’t just use it to cover up imperfections but to decorate and perform through.

That makes sense for a generation obsessed with eyeshadow and YouTube tutorials; though it also feels indicative of a time when teens are no longer just trying to fit in but happy to stand out. One of the joys of watching a teen show as a not-teen is noticing these small but meaningful cultural shifts.

And then there’s the cast.

Zendaya, the star of the show, is excellent in her role as a world-weary, young fuck up. Hunter Schafer is being lauded as the show’s breakout star for her role as new-kid-in-town Jules, while the already insta-famous Barbie Ferreira is great as Kat, who’s high all season off that crystal realisation that men are pathetic and sex can be a fun way to wield power.

Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd, plays Lexi Howard, while Sydney Sweeney is her older sister dealing with the fallout of slut shaming. Alexa Demie is great as Maddy, the girl in a toxic relationship with an abusive boyfriend.

It’s clever casting that half of these names or faces are already famous to real life teens, but it’s to each actor’s individual credit they’ve made their characters people you love and root for.

Gen X had Degrassi, millennials got Skins and now, Gen Z has Euphoria. As “extreme teen” shows go, 2019 couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Euphoria is available in Australia on Foxtel Now.

Katie Cunningham is a former editor of Junkee, a co-host of the money podcast Frugal Forever, and a freelance writer based in Sydney. She is on Twitter