Prime Video’s salacious new British soap opera Riches may be a poor investment of your time.
So, how much are family-sized desert islands going for these days?
That’s a fairly rational response to what we see in HBO’s Euphoria, a teen-themed show that’ll leave parents feeling the exact opposite of euphoric. It’ll make them want to smash all smartphones, bar all home windows and, very possibly, plant tracking devices in the backs of their teens’ necks.
Never has what The Who called the “Teenage Wasteland” looked like such a waste. Or so wasted.
Rue Bennett serves as the show’s narrator and dramatic centerpiece. Diagnosed with a dizzying array of mental and emotional disorders when she was a child, Rue’s learned how to cope with them—and the pain of her father’s untimely death—through an equally dizzying array of drugs. She spent the summer after sophomore year in rehab after an overdose nearly killed her. And despite her mom’s hope for a “brand-new chapter” in her life, Rue spends the first half of her junior year fluctuating between sobriety and intense relapses.
But drugs aren’t Rue’s only addiction. She falls in love with Jules, her transgendered best friend, and starts treating their relationship as another drug to numb her pain.
Jules, naturally, has issues, too. The teen’s been known to hook up with much-older men in seedy hotels (which sometimes turns into rape). One of those rapists just happens to be the ever-so-closeted father of Nate, the local football star.
Meanwhile, Nate and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Maddy, have wild sex with each other and/or any other boys or girls nearby, depending on what their relationship status is. But that’s not all.
Nate takes after his father in the worst way possible. When Maddy hooks up with another guy, he beats the guy half to death, threatening to charge him with statutory rape. Then Nate gets violent with Maddy, leaving bruises on her neck after choking her. And in order to avoid being charged, he forces hook-up guy to take the blame—you know, because assault is a lesser sentence than rape.
Then there’s Kat—an overweight, bespectacled friend of Maddy’s—who desperately tries to shed her good-girl image by entering into the realm of the scuzzily dressed and desperately easy. (Not to mention by becoming a cam-girl on a pornographic website despite being a child.)
Then there are … well, there are other people struggling with their own issues and problems, including teen pregnancy, subsequent abortions and probably other unmentioned traumas. But in this world that puts several circles in Dante’s Inferno to shame, the particulars blend together in the show’s pounding images of skin and powder, liquor and blood.
Euphoria is the latest product of creator Sam Levinson’s fascination with badly-behaving youth: He also directed the similarly salacious and depressing Assassination Nation—perhaps my least-favorite film of 2018. Like Euphoria, Nation featured a bevy of underage men and women behaving horrifically. It suggested that the mountains of drugs, the hyper-casual sex and the terrible ways that almost everyone treats each other are the rule these days, not the exception.
All these sins and mistakes aren’t just hinted at in Euphoria (which is based on an Israeli show). Levinson makes sure we see them—as graphically as the liberal confines of HBO allow. Nudity can be pervasive. Sexual themes are ever-present. Violence can be wincingly horrifying. One cast-member allegedly quit because the content was so extreme. Former Disney star Zendaya is warning her fans that some scenes could even act as “triggers.”
The result is perhaps the most graphic show on television—and one that earned a scathing statement from the family-centric watchdog Parents Television Council.
“Just as MTV did with Skins and as Netflix is doing with 13 Reasons Why, 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,” said PTC President Tim Winter. “HBO might attach a content rating suggesting that it is intended for mature audiences, but let’s be real here: who watches a show about high school children, except high school and junior high school-aged children?”
But I’ll add on to that thought: what adult watches a show about high school children having sex without feeling like a predator?
And I’m not the only one thinking this. On Jan. 20, 2022, the Parents Television and Media Council urged members of the public to sign its petition calling on HBO to stop airing the show due to it’s “child-themed pornography.” Said Winters:
“With its dark, nihilistic, teen-centered Euphoria HBO is sexually exploiting children for profit. The producers’ aberrant fixation with nude child characters engaged in sexual activity is something we’ve not seen in 26 years of monitoring television programming. HBO touts the show as its ‘youngest-skewing drama series’ on its streaming platform, which suggests teens are in fact watching. This grotesque sexualization of children must cease. We are urging members of the public to sign our petition calling on HBO and AT&T to do exactly that.”
If we peel away the bleak, often sickening layers of the show like an onion, we may discover that Levinson has more in mind than merely shock and titillation. Euphoria also offers us a painfully raw portrait of what might be called a lost generation—one that in Rue’s words, is just “reaching for something meaningful.”
The sex and drugs represent the young characters’ attempts to fill this aching vacuum inside themselves—and to still the pain from past experiences. Even Rue’s drug dealer knows it: “This drug s— is not the answer,” he tells her. And in its own extremely explicit way, Euphoria does remind us that teens have stressors and variables today that older adults never had to deal with. It’s never been harder to be a teen. Or, frankly, a parent.
But we don’t need HBO to clue us in to that, do we? And we certainly don’t need to be shown a hyperdrive version of that sad truth. Do some teens sext these days? Drink? Have sex? Lie to their parents about it all? Sure. But that doesn’t mean we need to see dramatized facsimiles of all those things.
While Euphoria tries to depict today’s “Teenage Wasteland,” the show itself is a wasteland that’s just as bleak, cynical and dangerous. If you want to know what your kids are dealing with, talk with them—over dinner, during a hike, whenever the opportunity strikes. Asking HBO to tell you what your son or daughter might be dealing with seems like a pretty bad decision itself.
After Rue relapses at the end of Season 1, we see her return to a life of drug use as the lives of her friends and classmates continue to unravel as well.
Teenagers remove clothes and engage in sexual activity. We see the genitals of teenage boys and girls as well as adult men and women. A man and woman engage in oral sex. Song lyrics talk about oral sex as well. We see the activities that happen inside a strip club. Dozens of teens dance provocatively at a party wearing skimpy outfits. Several teenage couples make out (including gay and lesbian pairings). A boy obsessively questions his friend about sex, going into graphic detail.
Several people are subjected to a strip search. When Rue refuses on the grounds that she is a minor, a man takes her to a bathroom and forces her to lift her shirt and remove her pants in private so he can search her. Another child—a 12-year-old drug dealer—is removed from the room during the search.
A woman shoots her grown son in both his kneecaps after learning that he gave his own son a black eye. (We see the bruised child waiting in the car outside.) A 12-year-old boy hits two men with a hammer, killing one instantly and badly breaking the nose of the other (we see his bandaged face later). A woman takes a crowbar to a man’s head, and when her grandson tries to stop him, she accidentally hits the boy as well, causing him to black out for two months. A teenager breaks a glass on another boy’s head before hitting him in the face multiple times, knocking him unconscious and likely breaking several bones. A man smashes a woman’s head into drywall. Two girls are removed from a car through the windows. One of them is later man-handled by a grown man. Several people are held at gunpoint. We learn a child is carrying a gun.
We learn that a man gave himself diabetes by overeating and had to have his feet amputated before eventually dying. After a kid’s grandmother gets sick (possibly from her repeated drug use), he becomes the main caretaker of their family, dropping out of school, running a drug business and raising his little brother.
Nate drinks and drives, speeding to more than 100 miles per hour. A drunk girl in the passenger seat unbuckles, removes her underwear (because she spilled beer on herself) and leans out of the window as he recklessly cruises along.
Rue and another girl use heroin. Rue then snorts a few other drugs and nearly goes into cardiac arrest. She narrowly avoids death by asking someone to help her snort Adderall (which was in her sock, indicating that she knew she might overdose ahead of time).
Rue and dozens of others drink, get drunk, smoke marijuana and cigarettes. We see a young child smoking. A teenager purchases beer using a fake ID. A baby accidentally eats a cigarette, earning him the nickname “Ashtray” from his caretaker.
A woman takes custody of her grandson after his father abuses him. She then teaches him how to deal drugs. Later, she pseudo-adopts a baby after one of her clients leaves the child with her as collateral and never returns. This child also becomes a drug dealer.
We see a few people use the toilet. A girl uses a washcloth to wipe when there is no toilet paper then accidentally throws the soiled rag on another girl’s face.
We hear multiple uses of the f-word, s-word and c-word. There are also a few uses of the n-word in lyrics. Other foul language includes “a–,” “a–hole,” “b–tard,” “b—h,” “c—ks–ker,” “d–n,” “d–k,” “h—” and “p-ss.” Two girls are called “junkie whores.” God’s and Christ’s names are abused.
Two people discuss whether they believe in God. A girl says that Christians “stole” Christmas from the pagans, so her own family (who is Jewish) doesn’t feel guilty about celebrating Christmas as well. She also says that King James not only had the Bible translated to English but also hired witches to turn his urine into gold. She asks a drug dealer how he justifies dealing drugs if he believes in God. He responds that if his gluttonous uncle can get away with giving himself diabetes, then he should be able to get away with dealing drugs. Someone wears cross earrings. A woman wears a jacket that says “God’s Word, God’s Will.”
Rue Bennett returns home after a stint in what appears to be a faith-based rehab facility. Meanwhile, new boy/girl Jules hooks up with a middle-aged man, and they have sex in a sleazy hotel before Jules sees a picture of the man’s wife and family and bolts.
The sex in that hotel room is lurid and graphic as anything on television, even by HBO standards. We see the man fully nude from the side, back and front. The explicit depiction of his anatomy crosses into pornographic territory. The subsequent sex scene is quick, pretty graphic and, for Jules, obviously painful.
It’s not the only sex scene we see. Two teens have sex in a pool during a party (a dalliance that’s filmed by several partygoers). Another guy and girl have sex at the same party—with him choking her, just like he sees in pornographic movies. (We see an indistinct montage of sadistic porn clips; we also see his naked rear and her exposed breasts.) Another young woman’s breasts are shown as well. We see Jules in underwear, clearly revealing Jules’ biologically male gender. Several adolescent girls cavort in their underthings, and lots of high school guys hang around shirtless.
People talk about sexual acts and inclinations: One guy talks a teen girl, heretofore a virgin, into removing some of her clothes and performing a sex act on him. (She apparently obliges with the latter off camera and perhaps does lots more: She later celebrates her lost virginity with a friend.)
In flashback, we see a 12-year-old Rue get a graphic, obscene text from someone threatening to rape her, and we hear lewdly descriptive details of how an acquaintance tried to molest her at a school dance. Teen guys watch a pornographic clip on someone’s phone that supposedly shows a high-school classmate of theirs having sex with two guys. We see several other pictures of that same high-school girl nude and posing provocatively. Jules scrolls through pictures of naked and semi-naked men, along with one picture of a penis. In narration, Rue explains that in 2019, “unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us.”
In rehab, Rue attends a mock funeral and later says the Serenity Prayer with fellow recovering addicts. When Rue later connects with her former drug dealer, he asks how she is. “Ever since I gave my life over to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, things have been, like, really good,” she says jokingly—and then buys/steals drugs from his little brother (the foul-mouthed 11-year-old who’s really in charge). She buys some new pills, snorts white powder and drinks a lot. We see her hallucinate: At one point she weeps glitter. When her suspicious mother asks her to take a drug test while they’re both in the bathroom, Rue bolts to a friend’s house to get some untainted urine, tapes the sample to her upper thigh, sneaks back in and dispenses the urine in a jar while her mother’s back is turned.
Others drink (wildly to excess), smoke (cigars and marijuana) and vape. In flashback, Rue’s little sister discovers that Rue has overdosed; she’s unconscious on the floor with a puddle of vomit beside her head.
A montage shows Rue crashing her bike several times. A high-school guy threatens Jules, who pulls a knife on him—then slashes Jules’ own forearm. (Rue later treats the bloody injury.) Someone runs Jules off the road, and Jules crashes in someone’s front yard. (We see painful red abrasions on Jules’ upper thigh.)
We hear the f-word nearly 70 times, the s-word another 30 or so and read the c-word once. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “p—y,” “d–k,” “n—er” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused four times.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her fiancé indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.
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