I call them the “funkies” — “f**ked-up nihilistic kids” whose self-destructive tendencies spread fear into the hearts of adults across the land. You may not have seen them in real life, but you will almost certainly have seen them on your screens, dating all the way back to “Reefer Madness” in the 1930s. What are they rebelling against? Whaddya got?
These funkies are currently on display in HBO’s “Euphoria” (Hot HBO, Mondays at 22:00 and Yes Edge, Tuesdays at 23:40), a show full of the kind of teenage delinquency and debauchery that cable television was invented for.
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It’s based on a 2012 Israeli show of the same name, yet despite the presence of Israeli writer/director Ron Leshem on both shows, they are worlds apart. (Leshem writes one episode of the remake, although I’m more intrigued to see his work on the upcoming Syrian Civil War political drama for Hulu, “Fertile Crescent.”) It’s like the difference between a cave painting and a Hieronymus Bosch – and that’s not only because HBO has thrown a lot of money at the screen.
The original series is an unpretentious character study of lost young souls. The new version, though, aims to be a “ripped from the headlines” show that seemingly wants to appeal to both teenagers and their parents, but never fully quite succeeds in either regard.
What’s most interesting when you watch the shows back to back is that the original is far more empathetic to its young characters, who are also more likeable than their American equivalents. The problem is that the HBO show seems to view its characters as lab rats that it can do unpleasant things to, and then record the results.
I can’t say I derived much pleasure from either show. But there is, appropriately enough, something horribly addictive about Sam Levinson’s eight-part U.S. drama – a show that features the most rampant drug-taking America has seen since Robert Downey Jr. went clean.
It is well documented that Generation Z (or Gen Z – those youngsters born between 1995 and 2015) is having less sex and consuming less alcohol and drugs than previous generations. But it would seem that this memo never reached either the HBO executives or Levinson, who himself suffered from drug addiction and depression as a teenager – which helps explain why this element is the most convincing part of his show.
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Transporting a few of the characters from the original (the girl with weight issues trying to lose her virginity, the kind-hearted young drug dealer and his even younger assistant) and the same air of discombobulated youth living in a world devoid of parental control, “Euphoria” 2019 feels like a combination of a Harmony Korine movie (think “Spring Breakers” but, mercifully, without James Franco), a no-expense-spared music video and the lyrics to a particularly depressing country and western song. The rule of thumb here is that if anything bad can happen to a character, it will.
Set in a small suburban town where the middle class doesn’t appear to be particularly squeezed, the show could alternatively be called “13 Reasons Why Drugs Screw You Up, Eventually.” (It could also be called “Bike Rides Are, Like, the Most Photogenic Thing Ever,” given the show’s penchant for portraying its two protagonists cycling through town in beautifully composed shots – reminiscent of the roller-skating scenes in “Sharp Objects,” but with even better Instagram effects.)
Unfortunately, a lot of the characters here feel overly familiar: The star quarterback (convincingly played by Australian actor Jacob Elordi), whose toxic masculinity is far-too-neatly explained away in the opening episodes; the sensitive jock (Algee Smith) whose overexposure to porn has screwed him up; and the Snapchat-sorority sisters who agonize over their looks and potential partners.
So far, so predictable. Thankfully, though, “Euphoria” also has two compelling female protagonists who energize events whenever they appear on screen: The show’s narrator, Rue (Zendaya), a drug addict who is fresh out of rehab but has as much chance of staying clean as a dog walking past a muddy puddle; and her new best friend, the equally mesmeric Jules (played by Hunter Schafer — and if you have never heard of her, I suggest you resist the temptation to find out more about the actress until later in the series).
“I know you’re not allowed to say it, but drugs are kind of cool,” Rue imparts in one of her frequent voiceovers. “I mean, before they wreck your skin, and your life, and your family – that’s when they get uncool. It’s actually a very narrow window of cool.”
That also serves as a perfect description of the show itself: a very narrow window of cool. When we are with Rue or Jules, “Euphoria” feels alive. But then come those rote Gen Z scenes featuring wild party scenes in fabulous homes, kids with intimacy issues and kids whose idea of communicating face to face is via emojis.
Mind you, it’s not just the kids that aren’t all right. The few adults who feature are even more messed up: Eric Dane is a long way from Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital with his depiction of a monstrous father with a very disturbing hobby; Rue’s mom is seemingly there solely to agonize over her junkie daughter; and then there’s the mom who’s a lush straight out of the first draft of an Edward Albee play.
You have to give the show credit for its depiction of drug use, kinetically capturing both the highs and the lows in increasingly inventive ways. There’s a particularly stunning moment where Rue’s world is literally turned upside down when experiencing a high, while the show’s eyeliner budget alone probably exceeds that of the entire original version.
Can a millennial write a convincing show about Gen Z? Not without resorting to cliché, if 34-year-old Levinson is any guide. Write about what you know, the old dictum goes – and when he does, that’s when his show genuinely connects. Otherwise, it feels like a slightly voyeuristic exercise trying way too hard to be down with the kids. (It’s interesting to note that Lena Dunham was 26 when her generation-capturing HBO comedy-drama “Girls,” about women in their early 20s, first aired in 2012.)
Ultimately, you emerge from “Euphoria” somewhat battered and bruised, uncertain if there is really anything of substance here or if it’s a hollow rush that reverts to sensationalism to keep viewers hooked.
What I do know is that after watching such a downbeat show, I was in desperate need of an upper and found the perfect antidote by rewatching the boxset of “My So-Called Life” — a teen drama that, shockingly, has now reached the grand old age of 25.
Filmed at a time when “one bar” referred to your drinking options rather than your cellular coverage, for me “MS-CL” achieved in one episode what “Euphoria” failed to manage in several: a powerful emotional response. As Claire Danes’ Angela Chase character breaks down at the end of the pilot episode, I found the tears streaming down my face. Despite all the horrors on show in “Euphoria,” nothing even came close to eliciting a similar reaction.
Of course, when you view a show set in the mid-’90s, it’s impossible not to be struck by how comparatively simple things seemed for teens in that analog world. In some ways, it makes you more sympathetic to the kids in “Euphoria.” Even so, I suspect that in another 25 years, people will still be hailing “My So-Called Life” as a masterpiece and “Euphoria” will have been long forgotten.