One of HBO’s new summer series, Euphoria, has made headlines for its no-holds-barred depiction of contemporary teenage life — but its creator is far removed from its characters’ realities. Sam Levinson’s (Another Happy Day, Assassination Nation) drama is (in part) based on an Israeli TV show of the same name. Euphoria is also (again, in part) based on Levinson’s own adolescent experience with substance abuse. But rather than center the show around a person resembling himself, Levinson gives us Rue, brought to life in a stunning and heart-shattering performance by Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Greatest Showman).
Rue is an addict. Rue is also a biracial black girl. She began using during her father’s terminal illness, and long before that she was diagnosed with severe anxiety and clinical depression. Euphoria depicts Rue’s post-rehab junior year of high school, painting intimate portraits of Rue, her family, and her classmates, framed by Zendaya’s matter-of-fact, cynical, and often mournful narration.
Alongside Zendaya, the show features a vaguely diverse — almost entirely cisgender, mostly straight, majority white — ensemble cast of young talents, some more recognizable than others: Maude Apatow (Knocked Up), Algee Smith (The Hate U Give), Alexa Demie (Mid90s), Jacob Elordi (The Kissing Booth), and Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us), along with newcomers Hunter Schafer, Barbie Ferrera, and Angus Cloud. For Levinson to stun me, he needs to make some bolder moves, whether in casting or other creative choices.
In theory, Euphoria tackles body positivity, sex positivity, addiction, clinical depression, sexual orientation, consent, fraternity hazing, abusive relationships, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, grief, and more. Euphoria is certainly ambitious. In practice, Levinson’s uncompromising show might not get everything right — and Levinson is the problem. Pinpointing where he missteps comes down to a question of representation. Who is represented in Euphoria, and why? Why is Levinson’s main character a black woman, whose adolescence doesn’t reflect his own? Further, the question of representation applies not just to who is on screen, but who is behind the screen. Whose voice is heard in the writer’s room?
Levinson has no writer’s room. His choice to write alone is, to an extent, impressive. But to a much larger extent, his choice is confusing. If Levinson chose Rue as the main character primarily because he wanted to highlight a marginalized teen, Rue’s Season One arc should have delved into her identity as a young black woman instead of just her addiction. And Instagram-beloved Zendaya may not have been chosen for the lead. Knowing that I started watching the show for Zendaya makes me wonder whether Levinson cast a black girl because Rue really could be anybody — but casting Zendaya is an immediate audience-grab.
There are many things I like about Euphoria. The makeup is innovative and deeply thought-out. Head makeup artist Donielle Davy (If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry) shares the stories behind each look on Instagram: in the season finale, a silver star in Rue’s glitter tears disappears when her heart breaks. At prom, Maddy (Alexa Demi) turns to a dark, guarded eyeshadow look as her relationship with Nate (Jacob Elordi) becomes more consuming and dangerous; small rhinestones by Maddy’s eyebrows indicate hope sparkling in the darkness. In contrast to extremes like iridescent eyeliner spikes, Davy pulls off equally well the barest of looks to illustrate vulnerability as Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) goes for an abortion.
The cinematography dramatizes the emotional beats: the camera turns upside down as Rue becomes unexpectedly attached to the girl lying in bed beside her. The lighting is hazy when Jules (Hunter Shafer) walks into a murky situation, and blindingly bright in the moment of Rue’s utmost panic. The cast does wonders with their characters’ complexities. Even the most hated character is sympathetic in a certain moment.
And Zendaya. Oh, Zendaya. The Disney-prodigy turned blockbuster love interest shines as Rue, the protagonist and omniscient narrator, and her performance constantly stuns me. (She shines quite literally with Davy’s handiwork.) I struggle to think of someone else who could capture the physical tics of Rue’s anxiety. I love how Zendaya’s Rue exists in a world of swirling colors that match her shifting emotions, but Sam Levinson is not the cinematographer, or the makeup artist, or the lighting person. A viewer cannot totally separate any elements from Euphoria’s writer-director, but one can certainly give credit where credit is due — I give much credit to Donielle Davy and the three-woman casting team.
The conundrum of Euphoria is that Levinson’s show centers around a character whose identity he doesn’t share, even if they have both struggled with addiction. Is this diversity for the sake of checking a box and staying relevant? Levinson’s “writer’s room” is missing a black woman who can speak to Rue’s experience. Knowing how harmful bad representation can be, I have to be cautious. Rue moves me because of Zendaya’s acting skills, not necessarily because of the script. Euphoria often feels grounded more in the issues than in a character’s specific identity or experience. If I pull out Rue or Maddy or Jules and replace them with someone else, little would need to adjust around them for the show to work.
The perfect balance between what should be represented on screen and how it should be represented is difficult to achieve, to say the least, but it is especially difficult to achieve when the creator-writer’s experiences wholly misalign with the characters they’re crafting. Levinson tries. His effort to be socially relevant stands out in moments of clarity, like Maddy assuring Nate that it’s okay if he’s into guys, because sexuality is a spectrum. Levinson could try a little harder, involve queer screenwriters in his process, and explore this experience more deeply, as one example. His show succeeds not necessarily because of him, but perhaps in spite of him.
Euphoria highlights how young actors, particularly those from an underrepresented or under-respected group, will create beautiful art when given the platform to do so. Levinson ought to use his platform to make more space for underrepresented creators, centering authentic diverse narratives rather than his take on them, because lackluster representation isn’t going to cut it in Season Two.
Euphoria has been renewed for a second season on HBO.