Paul Asay

TV Series Review

So, how much are family-sized desert islands going for these days?

That’s a fairly rational response to what we see in Euphoria, a new teen-themed HBO 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 the Day You Watch This

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 in rehab after a sophomore-year overdose nearly killed her. But now she’s back for her junior year, ready for a “brand-new chapter” in her life, her hopeful mom chirps.

But Rue just wants some brand-new drugs. Oh, and to spend time with Jules, her transgendered best friend.

Jules, naturally, has issues, too. The teen been known to hook up with much-older men in seedy hotels. One of those men 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 says on Facebook. And Kat—an overweight, bespectacled friend of Maddy’s—is desperately trying to shed her good-girl image and enter into the realm of the scuzzily dressed and desperately easy.

Then there are … well, there are other people struggling with their own issues and problems and, you’d assume, STDs. 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.

Classes Are Optional, I Guess
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?”

Layers of the Onion

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.

Episode Reviews

June 16, 2019: “Pilot”

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.

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Paul Asay

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.

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