Wednesday 18 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Euphoria's glossy debauchery is not all it seems'

It's the teen drama of the moment, but where are the spots and exam notes, asks Donal Lynch

Causing outrage: Jules and Rue in Euphoria
Causing outrage: Jules and Rue in Euphoria
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

A rite of passage growing up in Ireland in the 1990s was watching teen movies and TV from America and realising they were precisely nothing like your own adolescence. The Breakfast Club, 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills, 90210 were adult visions of teen life where nerds were prone to suddenly becoming hot, nobody had proper acne (mainly because they were being played by actors who were already well into their twenties), and there wasn't a mangy school uniform or daunting pile of Leaving Cert notes in sight.

The one constant defining facet of teen life that no director dared to touch was the chronic, stultifying boredom. We were always less Dawson's Creek and more Adrian Mole.

Fast forward 20 years and the latest allegedly defining document of adolescence is the new HBO drama Euphoria, which premiered on Sky Atlantic this week. In a sense it's every bit as glossy as anything John Hughes dreamt up, and there are still 25-year-olds playing 15-year-olds, but instead of convertibles and quiffs of yore, teen life is now shown as something much "darker" and "grittier".

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The main character, Rue - played by former Disney princess, 22-year-old Zendaya Coleman - has just left rehab and the world she narrates is filled with pills, self-harm, drinks, dating apps, erect penises, and nude pics. The boys learn about sex from their father's porn stashes and the girls put up with the consequent low-grade sexual assaults that pass for courting. There are constant parties, sexual dares, and a few shock moments that are reminiscent of the 2003 movie Thirteen. Parents are rarely, if ever, seen - Rue's mother makes the occasional tearful appearance. All in all, it's the kind of exciting danger and incessant drama any teenager marooned in Irish suburbia would kill for - but would probably mainly watch on television.

The adults, for whom this series is surely made, are meant to be aghast at all this licentiousness. Creator Sam Levinson recently said: "There are going to be parents who are going to be totally f**king freaked out." But, in reality, the worst horror of all has already been described in the first few seconds, when Rue tells us: "I was born two days after 9/11." At which point we were age… let's not even think about it. Suffice to say, this will make you feel very, very old.

And you'll feel very fuddy duddy altogether if you are looking for anything as quotidian as a plot. Euphoria is instead a series of loosely connected impressionistic sequences. The show's creators have thrown aside formal concerns like continuity and structure and instead, lean heavily on visuals and an incredible soundtrack to create a specific mood and tone that places you right in the mindset of a young girl fighting between a desire to overcome her various mental illnesses (she has OCD, borderline personality disorder)and addiction.

Where Euphoria gets more interesting is the way it treats the thorny issues around sexual consent. With brutal honestly it depicts how disposable teen girls are to teen boys. The boys mistreat, and cajole the girls into compromising situations, both pressuring them to give in and then judging them for having done so.

The girls, in turn, reframe these encounters as empowering to them. One of the characters loses her virginity in a way that we can see is humiliating and not far off rape, but she quickly presents it as a moment of triumph to be bragged about with her friends.

Like a moody teen, Euphoria doesn't always do quite what's expected of it, however. Amid all the dangling penises, vape smoke and lesbian kissing, there is an unexpected characteristic that distances the series from nearly all others that came before it. While Gen X teens spurned stability and raged against The Man, these teens are curiously money motivated. They want to "secure the bag" and "pay off the mortgage". They are "thirsty" for dollar bills. These are not insignificant details. We read constantly of an entire generation of 'snowflakes' being locked out of the world of property and pensions, but if this series is any weathervane, today's youth is not taking that lying down.

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