When Barry Levinson was 34, he helped write Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock spoof “High Anxiety.” When his son Sam Levinson was 34, he wrote about a different kind of high anxiety with his drug-fueled drama “Euphoria.”
When Levinson Sr. wanted to recreate scenes from his youth, he served up the 1982 yuk-fest that was “Diner.” When Levinson Jr. wanted to recreate scenes from his youth, he took a somewhat bland Israeli series and turned it into the darkest of shows about addiction and angst – creating HBO’s first teen drama in the process.
What’s clear is that the Levinsons had different experiences growing up, but both used these formative events to dramatic effect (though Barry did discover, while watching the Johnny Depp movie “Blow,” that a childhood friend he’d lost touch with had gone on to become America’s biggest cocaine dealer).
When season 1 of “Euphoria” came out in June 2019, I wrote here about the key differences between the Israeli and HBO versions, including the fact that the glitter budget for the U.S. version probably exceeded the entire cost of its kosher antecedent.
The prime difference, though, was Levinson, who poured his teenage suffering – and that of some of his lead actors – onto the screen, making this possibly the most autobiographical and personal adaptation of someone else’s work since Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” script in 2002.
In James Andrew Miller’s heavier-than-the-Bible new book “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers,” Levinson recalls the pitching process when HBO was looking for a screenwriter to adapt the Hot TV original.
“I struggled with drug addiction when I was younger, so I was talking about that, what our struggles were growing up and a little bit about the Israeli show,” he recounted. “I said, ‘How closely do I have to stick to [the original]?’” HBO drama series co-head Francesca Orsi told him, “Just write what we just talked about.”
- The big difference between HBO's 'Euphoria' and the original Israeli version
- How ‘Succession’ conquered the world, and 11 must-see shows from 2021
- Why Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ matters – even if the film itself sucks
Whatever your views of the show, no one can deny that Levinson certainly achieved that brief. I was completely overwhelmed – not in a good way, it must be said – by the creator’s grim-yet-glitzy depiction of life among a group of U.S. Generation Z-ers in a scuzzy plot centered around sex, drugs and a hip-hop/R&B soundtrack (but not in that order).
I felt like I had to take a shower after each episode, and that normally only happens when I mistakenly flick over to Fox News.
As befits its title, though, “Euphoria” has created a sense of fervor among its many followers. I learned that two ways: First, from the emails informing me that my mother cooks socks in hell – or words to that effect – for having the temerity to dislike the show when it premiered. And second, from hearing my teenage daughters talking about the series and its lead characters – especially hard-line addict Rue (Zendaya) and transgender newcomer to suburban America Jules (Hunter Schafer) – with such passion and, it must be said, admiration.
I stopped watching halfway through season 1, worn down by the bleakness of it all. For me, it was a, um, wasted opportunity that looked sensational but felt hollow: a 30-something man projecting his own somewhat tawdry ideas of what a generation messed up by hard-core porn and parental neglect might look and act like.
But for my kids – the youngest of whom is 17, the same age as the show’s protagonists – it’s become one of the most important series on television, if not the most important. They may not share the specific problems of these characters (well, I hope they don’t), but there are people here that they strongly connect and identify with. Still, looking on the bright side, at least now I don’t need to worry that they won’t know how to take drugs, thanks to the series’ step-by-step guide.
The show is one of the biggest signs of the age/generational gap between me and my children, right up there with the meticulous documenting and publishing of every. Single. Meal. (I promise, I'll stop doing it eventually.) I watch “Euphoria” with the same degree of confusion and bafflement my kids have when I hand them a newspaper and suggest they read it.
My youngest assures me that the series has lost none of its “charms” second time around – interestingly, it took her and her sister two viewings to truly fall in love with “Euphoria,” the second time while watching communally with friends – but I’m going to take her word for it.
In the words of Danny Glover and almost every other action movie since 1987’s “Lethal Weapon,” at 55 I’m too old for this s**t.
Thanks, but if I want to see a great high school series about adolescent angst, I’ll just revisit “My So-Called Life,” “Freaks and Geeks” or the first season of “Sex Education.” Rather than something that just wants to put the “high” into high school.
That’s enough teen spirit
When the makers of the excellent “Yellowjackets” were pitching their teen-mystery show across town a few years ago, HBO reportedly turned them down because they already had “Euphoria” on their slate.
HBO’s loss was very much Showtime’s gain, but it was an interesting insight into the thinking of the pay cable giant – which turns 50 this year. Surveys suggest that the “30 to 49” age range is the station’s biggest demographic, followed by 18-29s, so it’s telling that it didn’t want to take the risk of adding a second teen-oriented show – even though “Yellowjackets” is much more than just a series about teenagers, thanks to its combination of survival story in the mid-1990s and present-day story among the survivors.
This apparent aversion to flooding its schedule with teen-skewing shows becomes more noticeable when you look at HBO’s big hits in recent years: “Chernobyl,” “Succession,” “Mare of Easttown,” “The White Lotus,” “The Undoing,” “The Righteous Gemstones,” all of whose protagonists generally fit into that “30-49” demographic.
And that’s before we even mention the ongoing success of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with its 74-year-old lead, and upcoming period drama “The Gilded Age” created by Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes – himself a mere 72.
This anecdote I heard recently on NPR’s “Planet Money” seems quite revealing about both HBO and its audience (if I’d just led by telling you that I love NPR, you’d already know that I’m over 50): When HBO considered replacing its sonic ID, aka the audio logo that plays before and after its original shows, it couldn’t find anything to top it. Research showed that people just preferred the Static Angel – yes, it even has its own name – which presumably inspires Proustian thoughts of the great HBO shows they’ve watched over the years, plus “Entourage.”
How much do people love that sonic ID? Well, this clip of the seven-second audio logo has been viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube. (I suspect it’s kids getting high and watching it over and over, joining in with the sounds every time.)
I gleaned two things from all this: HBO means an awful lot to an awful lot of people, many of whom will have grown up with the cable network; and 40-something actors should always keep the phone close, lest their agent call about a new HBO project.
Like, for instance, the delightful new HBO comedy “Somebody Somewhere,” in which comedian Bridget Everett plays an underachieving 40-something single woman not so much stuck in a rut as permanently lodged there. (I haven’t watched HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” yet, but it’s worth noting that even in a comic-book genre that traditionally skews younger, the protagonist is played by 44-year-old John Cena. Everett turns 50 this April, so she just snook in.)
The other Manhattan
As I have attended zero stand-up shows in New York, Everett isn’t a comedian I was particularly aware of, even though she appears in the brilliant Netflix drama “Unbelievable” – which I am now happily going to rewatch to see who she plays. In fact, I’ve probably been guilty of confusing her with Amy Schumer more than anything else, which is not helped by the fact that her IMDB profile features the trailer for “Expecting Amy” prominently displayed at the top of her page.
What I do know for certain is that she is excellent in “Somebody Somewhere” as Sam, who moved back to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas – the eighth biggest town in the flyover state, we are reliably informed – to care for dying sister Holly. Six months later, she hasn’t been able to move on and is doing drudge work grading kids’ essays with all the energy of a stuffed sloth.
It’s quite telling that the show presents its title in lowercase letters, because this is a deliberately understated comedy that slowly gets its hooks into you. I’ve seen all seven episodes and while I wasn’t surprised to find myself laughing as the story unfolded, I was shocked by how moved I was by it all, and how much I came to care for all of the principal characters.
That’s important, because what starts out as a low-key look at a 40-something character struggling to find their way is given real freshness by its setting of Manhattan, Kansas – and not the Manhattan we’re used to seeing people normally flounder in. As the struggling Sam tells work colleague and eventual friend Joel (Jeff Hiller), “We’re in our 40s and it hasn’t happened yet … and it definitely isn’t going to happen here.”
In some ways this Kansas town is Trumpsville, a God-fearing, GOP-loving part of the world where there are seemingly more churches than bars. (I had to google “Bull & Bear,” where one scene is set, to see if there really is a bar where you throw axes at a target – there is, but it’s in Illinois, where the show was actually filmed.)
But the “Little Apple” is also a college town, arguably Kansas’ equivalent to Austin, Texas, and the show’s writers and creators subvert any redneck stereotypes by focusing on the freaks and geeks (in a good way). It’s no surprise to learn that those creators, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, are both actors given this show’s emphasis on character over plotline, or that the funniest, most poignant episodes are written by Patricia Breen, who cut her comedy teeth on “Frasier” some 20 years ago.
Joel is a cockeyed optimist who, in the immortal words of “Mean Girls,” is almost too gay to function, while Murray Hill steals every scene as Prof. Fred Rococo – undoubtedly the world’s most outlandish soil scientist. Even the more traditional-seeming characters, such as Sam’s bitchy sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) and her farm-owning, aging parents (Mike Hagerty, Jane Brody), are much more complex than we first imagine and are an integral part of why the show succeeds.
Produced by the Duplass brothers (so there’s your first sign that this is going to be worth watching), “Somebody Somewhere” may be a relatively small comedy. But its huge heart makes this the first must-watch show of 2022 – even if “Euphoria” fans may need to ask their parents about those references to Air Supply, Roberta Flack and Crystal Gayle.
“Euphoria” is on Hot and Yes VOD, and Cellcom tv/Sting TV on Mondays. “Somebody Somewhere” is on Hot and Yes VOD and Cellcom tv/Sting TV from Monday. Both shows air on HBO on Sundays and are then available on HBO Max.