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18 January 2022

The edgy teen TV series Euphoria is nasty, tedious and pornographic

The Bafta-nominated series about a group of young people is as unrelenting as a bulldozer when it comes to sex and violence.

By Rachel Cooke

At the beginning of the first episode of the second season of Euphoria, a woman with long, blonde hair who vaguely resembles Donatella Versace carefully makes her way through a strip club until she reaches a back office where an old guy is busy receiving a blow job. Naturally, he breaks off from this activity when she appears, and thanks to this – and to the series’ blunt-minded producers – we get to see his erect penis in the moments just before his visitor lifts her gun and shoots a bullet right into it. Seriously. There it is, bobbing around angrily, looking just like one of those cheap Polish sausages that have a little too much paprika in them.

As cultural initiations go – I hadn’t seen Euphoria before – this was quite something; in the moments afterwards, feeling obscurely polluted, I resolved dramatically to increase my intake of Feel New tea, a cleansing herbal brew I’m currently using in place of exercise. But even so, it didn’t fully prepare me for what would follow. Sam Levinson’s Bafta-nominated series about a group of young people (I’m not going to call them friends, since they can hardly be said to be straightforward pals) is as unrelenting as a bulldozer when it comes to sex and violence. Inevitably, the action mostly involves either one or the other, with only the odd interlude in which people take drugs. The same episode concluded with the dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) beating Nate (Jacob Elordi) to a pulp at a New Year’s Eve party, a scene in which human flesh turned to tinned tomatoes in as long as it takes to say: “Wanna beer?” (Incidentally, Donatella, it turns out, was Fezco’s granny, and the opening scene is a flashback to his dysfunctional childhood.)

Some parts of the media have come over all Mary Whitehouse about Euphoria. “What will this stuff do to teenagers?” they ask, seemingly oblivious that for this generation far worse has only ever been two clicks away. But it’s not the sex that bothers me – though all the breasts (and the rest) we get to see are entirely gratuitous, and personally, I’d rather not watch someone being throttled during intercourse; and the violence is no more extreme than that in, say, Breaking Bad. It’s the prevailing tone, at once nasty and tedious, that I loathe; watching the show, my mood hovers somewhere between boredom (there’s really nothing duller than someone who’s off their face attempting conversation) and dread (the sense that something unbearable is always about to happen).

Yeah, yeah. I know this series isn’t aimed at me; I know, too, that I don’t have to watch it. Nevertheless, the idea that a teenager might enjoy, let alone relate to such unrelieved numbness makes me feel utterly miserable. When you’re young, the word “euphoria” shouldn’t be shot through with irony. It should be what you feel at least half of the time.

I see that it’s slick. The soundtrack is great, and it has a Bruegel-like energy, the camera moving through crowded rooms with the dexterity of a practised clubber. I suppose the dialogue is pleasingly edgy, too, if self-conscious with it; even the bathroom scenes are determinedly witty (truly, the pleasure Euphoria takes in the scatological is worthy of a toddler). Its star, Zendaya, who plays Rue, a recovering (or non-recovering) drug addict, is mesmerically convincing, and I like Sydney Sweeney as Cassie (we last saw her as the spoiled, dead-inside Olivia Mossbacher in The White Lotus), her eyes like marbles, her pink cheeks somehow bringing to mind a couple of sea anemones.

But I don’t think that people – by which I mean, really, those non-teenagers who live in dread of appearing superannuated – should mistake extremity for mastery. When Cassie removes her knickers in the car en route to a party, and then twists her body in such a way as to enable Nate, her driver, to get a good look at her pudenda, it’s not revelatory of her character; nor is it, in itself, a particularly funny thing to do. Given, then, that this scene is also the product of the imagination of people (men!) much older than the girl who’s going commando, it seems kind of… porny. So tell me: does this make me seem superannuated? Or does it make me sound like someone who wants television to be a race, not to the bottom, but to the top?

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party