Content warning: Addiction, substance use
“Euphoria,” Gen Z’s favorite show about Gen Z has just announced plans for its second season. Based on creator Sam Levinson’s “own experience with anxiety, addiction and depression,” HBO’s racy drama about high school follows a group of students as they grapple with their own post-pubescent hurdles, from the pressures of athletic and academic stardom to deceit on dating apps. It’s called “Euphoria,” but “a feeling of intense happiness and excitement” is not what you feel as you begin the first episode, observing footage of the World Trade Center attacks.
“Euphoria” begins the same way Gen Z was thrust into the world: amid the violent ruins of post 9/11 America. The unrelentingly heavy tone of the show, which depicts subjects such as drug use, violence and revenge child pornography, has made it equally loved and hated for what fans see as accuracy and what critics see as glorification of its subject matter. The backlash can perhaps be interpreted as an example of what happens when art imitates life a little too vibrantly, and here, Gen Z’s own trauma is projected back to us in moody technicolor.
“Euphoria” stars Rue Bennett, a 17-year-old teen struggling with addiction, who in an ironic twist is played by Zendaya (“Dune”), our generation’s favorite Disney star. The students are revealed to us through Rue’s unreliable narration, and we experience the highs and lows of high school as Rue does.
As a result, while the harsh realities of drug use and addiction are made clear (in the second episode of the first season, Rue is shown laying in a pile of her own vomit after overdosing), Rue’s altered state gives the trippy scenes in “Euphoria” the most beautiful visuals, music and cinematography in the entire show. Yet, somehow, these scenes maintain a balance between being heavily stylized and viscerally realistic. Ultimately, the way “Euphoria” deals with its heaviest topics is uncomfortable and shocking.
“Euphoria” and its unapologetically bold depiction of mature themes have fueled many critics; some conservative organizations have even called for the show to be removed from the air due to what they see as the glamorization of violence, pills and sex. The Parents Television and Media Council, a U.S. Christian censorship advocacy group, expressed concern that “HBO, with its new high school-centered show ‘Euphoria,’ appears to be overtly, intentionally marketing extremely graphic adult content — sex, violence, profanity and drug use – to teens and preteens.” The media review platform Movie Guide has called upon its readers to sign a petition demanding HBO pull “Euphoria” from its programming, which it describes as “vile beyond belief.”
It is perhaps due to all of this that “Euphoria” has already become a cult classic — Gen Z’s “Pulp Fiction.” In the years following the show’s release, Gen Zers have cultivated a so-called “Euphoria aesthetic,” using colors and styles emblematic of the show so fully and so frequently that it is hard to imagine our generation before “Euphoria” aired in 2019. Teens across the country began wearing glitter-tear makeup and dressing up as characters Cassie and Maddie for Halloween. The actors’ Instagram accounts have gained millions of followers, and many fashion brands catered towards Gen Z have adopted the bold style of the show’s universe.
The way Gen Z has adopted the “Euphoria” aesthetic makes it feel as though the show is the mirror Gen Z didn’t know it needed. The generation’s embrace of the series is more about teens expressing their identity through technology and self-discovery and feeling understood than wanting to glorify substance use and sexual assault.
Levinson claims that, for “Euphoria,” he “was just trying to capture that kind of heightened sense of emotion when you’re young, and how relationships feel.” This decision, he says, was made to help older generations understand Gen Z, and for members of Gen Z to realize they are not alone as the gap between generations continues to widen and technology increasingly impacts how we live our lives.
Like characters Rue, Jules, Cassie, Maddie and Nate, I was born into a post-9/11 America. I, too, sat through lockdown drills, consumed media I probably shouldn’t have at my age. Though “Euphoria” is more severe than my experience, for me and many of my friends, the series represents many of the problems that we face and accurately reflects our generation’s fears and anxieties. Unlike the multitude of other shows about high school for Gen Z that I’ve recently watched, seeing these issues, albeit in the show’s caricatured, melodramatic depictions, felt cathartic and validated my own struggles with anxiety and technology throughout high school.
“Euphoria” is Gen Z, in all of its glittery, confusing, pixelated glory.
Daily Arts Writer Jaden Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.