The HBO high-school drama Euphoria will air an episode in which one of the show’s characters is confronted by an armed intruder in her bedroom and forced to participate in a game of Russian Roulette as a result. Immediately following the conclusion of the twisted contest, the camera pans to her dresser, where her phone displays a text message from a friend who is enraged by the way her boyfriend just spoke to her about it.
Aspect of adolescence that Euphoria most effectively captures is the feeling that everything that happens to you, no matter how major or minor, can carry the same hyperbolic weight — that anything positive feels like a trip to paradise, and anything negative feels like an apocalyptic catastrophe.
In fact, those extreme reactions are representative of the town of Euphoria, which is returning for a second full season after being absent for the majority of the previous two and a half years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new episodes contain scenes that are so thought-provoking or artistically presented that Euphoria can appear to be one of the very best shows that television has produced in a long time at the time of viewing. Others, on the other hand, are so exasperating and self-indulgent that they can make you wonder if you actually enjoyed the better parts of the film at all. Sometimes the same scene can elicit both of these reactions at the same time.
While there was a lengthy hiatus between seasons, Euphoria creator Sam Levinson wrote and directed two minimalist specials, each of which focused on one of his two central characters: relapsed drug addict Rue (Zendaya), who shares her sense of suicidal despair with her NA sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo); and Rue’s estranged girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer, who co-wrote with Levinson), who is grappling with her feelings about both Zendaya, Domingo, and Levinson delivered a masterful performance in the Rue episode, and Jules’s episode was both excellent and dramatically necessary, given that Season One provided only brief glimpses into her inner life. The specials, which were devoid of the show’s usual excesses of style and tone, were such compellingly intimate character pieces that they raised the tantalizing possibility of a shift in Levinson’s approach to the entire series once he reassembled the cast and crew to full strength.
The series’ affable young drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) is interrupted mid-blow job by Kitty (Katherine Narducci), who marches into a strip club and shoots him in the leg while blood sprays onto his erect penis. Any illusions of that are quickly dispelled in the first few minutes of tonight’s Season Two premiere. Euphoria is exactly the same as it has always been! We are reintroduced to the rest of the cast, which includes supervillain jock Nate (Jacob Elordi), queen bee Maddy (Alexa Demie), opposite sisters Cassie and Lexi (Sydney Sweeney) and occasional cam girl Kat (Barbie Ferreira), as well as new kid Elliot (Jacob Elordi) (Dominic Fike). An unruly New Year’s Eve party(*) is thrown into our laps, during which one character is savagely beaten, another has a urine-soaked washcloth thrown in their face, and another briefly goes into cardiac arrest is brought to our attention. As the season progresses, the situation does not become more tranquil.
() The Season One finale took place around the time of the school’s winter formal, and the Rue and Jules specials were both set on Christmas Eve, a few days later. (*) So, despite the fact that it’s been a long time for us, the kids haven’t had much time to pass. No one, with the possible exception of Storm Reid, who plays Rue’s younger sister Gia, has appeared to have aged significantly onscreen, but it’s not always easy to remember what happened to these characters two and a half years ago, and what developments may be informing their behavior here. Not that it helps that the show can be hazy at times about when events in one story are happening relative to events in another, and that it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy from flashbacks.
Considering that Levinson writes and directs all of the episodes, there are times when his sensory overload approach works wonders — sometimes in individual sequences, and sometimes for entire hours at a time. Another example of Zendaya’s mastery of the screen is found in the season’s relentless fifth episode, which sees Rue go through an all-night ordeal in order to get the fix she needs without coming into contact with either the police or the friendly-yet-threatening drug dealer Laurie (deadpan comedian Martha Kelly). (She was rightfully awarded an Emmy for the role, which aired in the fall of 2020.) Similarly, while the third episode of the series is a more or less business-as-usual ensemble episode, it is done with just enough levity — Zendaya knows how to tell a good joke, as evidenced by her performances in Shake It Up and the Spider-Man films — to make the series’ usual indulgences seem as if even Levinson admits they are a little bit ridiculous.
Every now and then, Levinson will turn the show into a slightly lighter, more comical, and more relaxed production. Simply put, he doesn’t appear to be interested in it — at least, not as much as he appears to be interested in the never-ending machinations of Nate, a sociopath who is capable of convincing anyone to do whatever monstrous thing he desires, no matter how much it is against their own self-interest. Despite Nate’s presence, some of the characters in his orbit develop fully — one episode features an extended flashback to the high school days of Nate’s closeted father, Cal (Eric Dane), which feels like what the mid-Nineties version of Euphoria would have been(*) — but Nate himself is such a caricature of clichés that it becomes difficult to take any scene with him seriously. This is especially true whenever the show attempts to humanize him in spite of the evil things he continues to do, which often comes across as unintentionally silly.
(*) Despite this, the show has the disadvantage of premiering after Showtime’s frequently Nineties-set Yellowjackets has supplanted Euphoria as the “It Show” about adolescent girls acting recklessly.
That’s less a criticism of Jacob Elordi and more of a criticism of the writing. Levinson is far more skilled at creating material that will allow the rest of his impressive young ensemble to be showcased. It’s clear that Zendaya is the best of the bunch, and she’s just as believable and fascinating when Rue is at her most hostile or cynical as she is when she’s at her most vulnerable. However, Sweeney (who was so memorably terrifying last summer on The White Lotus) is unwavering in her commitment to Cassie’s emotional journey this season, and she is rewarded by being much more central to the narrative than she was in Season One(*), even if this means that most of Cassie’s scenes also involve Nate (as was the case in Season One). This time around, Fike transitions seamlessly into the Rue and Jules segment of the show, and Schafer does an excellent job portraying a more subdued and emotionally conflicted Jules this time around.
(*) Generally speaking, the plotting is simpler, with roughly half of the show focusing on Rue, Jules, and Elliot, and the other half focusing on the Maddy/Nate/Cassie group, with some crossover. With the new arrangement, Kat is the only character who suffers because she has taken Cassie’s place as the odd woman out. The protagonist of a subplot about her dissatisfaction with a nice, handsome guy who treats her well, she is frequently on her own, as she laments in one scene, “There’s no darkness.” “It’s really sweet.” On a show like this, sweetness is, of course, the kiss of death.
An ex-schoolteacher named Laurie comes up to Rue and offers her this lesson on brain chemistry: After a period of time, the more drugs you take to make you feel happy and good, the less your brain will be able to process those feelings, until the best you can hope for is that the drugs will make you numb. There are times when Euphoria, like Rue, does not take into consideration the long-term consequences of constantly chasing the next rush of adrenaline. After several hours of nearly every scene being played at the highest possible emotional pitch, it becomes increasingly difficult for any single moment, no matter how outlandish, to make a lasting impression on the audience. The season-opening sequence about Fezco’s drug-dealing grandmother uses Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” which was featured in an iconic montage of similar activity in Goodfellas; however, when another scene in the same episode evokes Mr. Blonde dancing to Seventies soft rock in Reservoir Dogs (even using another song by Gerry Rafferty! ), it becomes tiresome.
Of course, critics once accused the young Quentin Tarantino of simply remixing ideas that he had stolen from his own idols, and if the Euphoria target audience is familiar with Goodfellas at all, it’s most likely as a dated film that their parents won’t let them forget. However, the double-shot of retro-music homages is suggestive of how Euphoria can never quite seem to leave well enough alone, even when things are going well. Although it can be wonderful at times, it can also be like being served a small mountain of your favorite ice cream flavor: delicious at first, but you’ll pay for it the more you eat of it.
At the end of the season, the shy Lexi decides to stop being an extra in her own life and instead decides to become the star, staging a play about herself and her friends, in which we see Maude Apatow and a slew of guest stars perform the plot of Euphoria in the auditorium of the school. On the one hand, this results in yet another fantastic and formally inventive episode, in which scenes from the stage blur into scenes featuring the “real” characters. On the other hand, this results in yet another fantastic and formally inventive episode. For the same reason as the third episode, it is more optimally balanced between angst and self-aware humor this time.) But on the other hand, because the scenes are so similar to one another, and Lexi’s voiceover is so evocative of the narration Zendaya delivers in magnetically understated fashion every other week, Euphoria as a whole feels like something Lexi might have written — and not in a flattering way.
In many instances, the show’s euphoria is great enough to excuse at least some of its bad behavior, even if the show also takes after Cassie, who acknowledges at one point, “I keep making mistakes and not learning from them.”
season 2 premieres tonight, January 9, on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes released on a weekly basis following that. On the whole, I’ve seen seven out of the eight episodes so far this season.