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HBO's 'Euphoria' is more than a parent's worst nightmare. It's a creative triumph

Zendaya plays Rue Bennett, a teenager struggling with substance use disorder, in HBO's Euphoria.
Eddy Chen
Zendaya plays Rue Bennett, a teenager struggling with substance use disorder, in HBO's Euphoria.

Let's be honest: Euphoria is a parent's worst nightmare.

Centered on a group of high school-age friends — each with their own problems handling an excess of drugs, drink and sex – HBO's drama has drawn some fans for its unbridled party scenes and horrified some grownups with its lineup of young characters who always seem to make the worst choices.

But creator/executive producer Sam Levinson has built a storytelling style that transcends the titillation of its surface-level story, finding new ways to stitch together the tales of characters seemingly trapped in a web of tragedies and missteps.

An ensemble story focused on pain

That daring, creative vision only deepens now, as the show's long-delayed second season takes flight on HBO – a pause only slightly alleviated by two special episodes dropped since the first season debuted in mid-2019. Though star Zendaya gets most of the attention playing Rue Bennett, a teen struggling with substance use disorder, the second season's episodes are truly an ensemble affair – opening with the harrowing backstory of Rue's drug dealing friend, Fezco, played by a laconic Angus Cloud.

An explosive series of flashbacks announces the start of the second season, depicting how Fezco's grandmother, a ruthless drug dealer herself, took over raising him after shooting his father in the hips at the back of a seedy strip club. (Yes, the guy's, um, excited private parts were shown; another way Euphoria shakes up expectations is by showing male nudity in ways even other explicit series do not.)

Much of this episode feels inspired by director Martin Scorsese's style in crime epics like Goodfellas – perhaps because of the liberal use of classic rock hits, sweeping camera angles, quick cuts, gangster activities or the appearance of Sopranos co-star Kathrine Narducci as Fezco's hardcore, gun-toting grandmother.

But as the ginger-haired drug dealer's story reaches the modern day — and we see Fezco negotiating a tense drug deal with suppliers who demand he and his friends strip naked to prove they aren't informants — Levinson's ability to make audiences feel what the characters are experiencing is masterful and discomfiting, all at once.

The characters bring a tangle of storylines to the second season. Rue is trying desperately to convince most of her family and friends that she is sober, though she most certainly isn't. Chief among those she's lying to is young, transgender girl Jules Vaughn (played by Hunter Schafer); the two had planned to run away together at the end of last season until Rue balked. In the second season, they are trying to build a romantic relationship, but Rue's barely-hidden addictions are an unspoken impediment.

Hunter Schafer plays Jules on HBO's Euphoria.
Hunter Schafer plays Jules on HBO's Euphoria.

Meanwhile, Jacob Elordi's toxic football star Nate is caught between on-again, off-again girlfriend Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and troubled blonde knockout Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). Turns out, Nate's terrible behavior is fueled by anger against his philandering dad Cal, played by Grey's Anatomy alum Eric Dane. And Cal's story as a tortured man struggling with his sexuality is given a breathtaking backstory in this season's third episode that will make you rethink a character depicted as a towering jerk.

These stories and several more are told with a gutsy, explicit flair, forcing the viewer to face the brutal reality of each character's pain, along with their poignant emotions. In particular, Rue's struggle to deal with her desire to get high – culminating in a tour de force story focused on her character in episode five – gets at the debilitating reality of addiction in a way few other shows match.

Depictions which bring a warning

Watching this can be so unsettling that Zendaya issued a warning on social media before the show's return Sunday, noting that Euphoria is for mature audiences and "deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch."

It's tempting to turn these stories and characters into parables about the issues bedeviling Generation Z. And scolds like the Parents Television and Media Council warn about the show's explicit content without noting it's a series aimed at adults about youthful characters behaving terribly, showing the often-debilitating consequences they pay for the awful decisions they make.

But Levinson's work in this second season makes the case that viewers are watching the lives of a coterie of very specific people mired in their own dysfunction and damage, each self-medicating in different ways, toward an almost universally tragic and emotional result.

That Euphoria somehow manages to make you keep caring about often-unlikeable folks on such brutal and dark journeys, is a testament to the uniquely creative voice distilled in each episode. It is thrilling, daring, disquieting and compelling – a triumph at a time when truly unique storytelling remains unsettlingly rare.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 11, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story identified the Parents Television and Media Council as the Parents Television Council, the group's former name. The story also spelled actress Sydney Sweeney's name incorrectly. Both have been updated.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.