Pop culture can’t let go of high school. Maybe it’s because everything feels electrically new or that it’s a breeding ground for drama or that we fetishize youth or all that and a million other reasons. What’s for certain is that few television shows or movies capture high school as it is, instead opting to hype up some idealized or horrific version of teendom.
Euphoria, just like the droves before it, definitely isn’t reality, no matter what their marketing team wants you to think. If it was then we’d all die of some stress-related condition before turning twenty, because good lord, this show is all issues, all the time.
At the top of the majorly messed up list is Rue, a 17-year-old recovering(?) drug addict just out of rehab. She’s also got a dead dad and a litany of mental disorders, so she’s not exactly a chill person to lead you through her town’s conglomeration of dangerously misfit toys. Seriously, everyone here is broken in one way or another, and the things these teens are washing down with alcohol, drugs, and sex is what got this show labeled by some as a a shock-obsessed frivolity.
No, Euphoria is not reality, but that’s not what television is here for, is it? At its best it does what every quality story strives to do: to tell a truth in a way that people will pay attention to, often in a heightened, flashy way, and sometimes with copious amounts of drugs and sex.
It tips its hat to this ethos through its style, which no one would ever describe this as realism. Flush with sensual cinematography and pulsing to incessant beats, this is more about how these kids feel than what they’re up to, even when the plot twists around their interconnected lives like some sort of gumshoe getting to the bottom of their no-good town. They’re being picked apart, for sure, but it’s to dispel many of the inane clichés that make high school stories so easily digestible in pop culture at large.
“Maybe people are nostalgic about high school because it was, like, the last time in their life that they could dream.”
Gag me. Euphoria throws out this line in its season one finale, and it dismisses the musing as swiftly as it deserves. The series is basically the antithesis of this, the antithesis of all the weird openness that we ascribe to teenagedom and of the tabula rasa we apply to characters of this age. Starting up stories with teens as often and as pervasively as we do in the culture at large comes to imply that this is a starting point, that the events before are only worthy of a brief summary and the rest, the rest is what matters.
But that’s bullshit. I know it, I hope you know it, and Euphoria definitely knows it. Who went into high school without scars already building up? Whose life hadn’t shrunken? Who hadn’t hurt people? And if you were one of the lucky few who made it that far without some life-altering damage, you sure as hell weren’t going to make it through without some.
Euphoria is all about digging deep into these supremely messed up characters, and that includes lengthy background dives into their lives before the show’s start, from deadbeat dads, broken promises, and some seriously fucked up introductions to porn. With this knowledge, the bravura breaks from reality that litter the series, like the image of a ice skater gracefully performing a routine, can symbolize how much the teen’s life has already narrowed, how much, in other circumstances, they may have been capable of but now have no chance of achieving.
Euphoria certainly doesn’t start these characters as blank slates, and that it dives in, right off the bat, with characters as deeply damaged and faulty as Rue upends the sweet, gentle start we’ve become accustomed to in high school dramas. Rue the drug addict, Rue the kid who’s already buried her dad, Rue the person who’s done lasting damage to the people she loves, isn’t at the start of life’s journey. She’s already well on her way, but at the same time, she hasn’t succumb yet and can still make all sorts of changes.
This wrinkle is enough to upend your expectations of a teen drama and to capture a simple truth: that we’re all weighed down by what’s come before, but we always, always can dream of something better. None of that is reserved for any particular age group.