Unlocking the sensory overload of 'Euphoria' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The HBO drama Euphoria depicts a world in which modern teenagers navigate a minefield of traumas. We see heavy drug use, illicit sex, destructive technology, damaged parents, physical violence, and so much more. The series stars Zendaya as Rue, whose drug addiction threatens both her life and the stability of those around her.

Unlocking the sensory overload of 'Euphoria'

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The HBO drama "Euphoria" depicts a world in which modern teenagers navigate a minefield of traumas. We see heavy drug use, illicit sex, destructive technology, damaged parents, physical violence and so much more. The show stars Zendaya as a girl whose drug addiction threatens both her life and the stability of those around her.

I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Euphoria" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: Joining us today is NPR Music editorial assistant LaTesha Harris. Hey, LaTesha.


THOMPSON: It is great to have you.

And making her POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut is NPR Music editor Hazel Cills. Welcome to the show, Hazel.

HAZEL CILLS, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. Thank you.

THOMPSON: So great to have you both here. So "Euphoria" made its debut on HBO with an eight-episode run back in the summer of 2019, with two specials in between Seasons 1 and 2. The second season began dropping at the beginning of this year, and it packs a lot of plot and characters into those episodes.

Zendaya plays Rue, who begins the show fresh out of rehab and soon meets a new best friend and love interest in Jules, played by Hunter Schafer. Jules is a young trans girl who hooks up with strange men in seedy hotel rooms. Their friends include a sensitive drug dealer named Fezco, played by Angus Cloud, and a girl named Kat, who finds a second life as an internet cam girl. She's played by Barbie Ferreira. We eventually get a seriously messed-up love triangle involving best friends Maddy, played by Alexa Demie, and Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney, both of whom wind up having sex with their school's horrible and psychotic quarterback Nate, played by Jacob Elordi. Nate's stern and menacing father Cal, played by Eric Dane, is one of the men who has sex with Jules in one of the aforementioned seedy hotel rooms. As you can probably tell, if you didn't know already, there is a lot going on here. I have barely scratched the surface.

"Euphoria" is based on an Israeli TV show with the same name, but this version was created and written by Sam Levinson. It is a deeply stylish show - lavishly shot, packed with music. And it's already won Zendaya an Emmy for its first season. Hazel, I'm going to start with you. And I know this is a hard question to answer quickly. What do you think of "Euphoria"?

CILLS: I personally love "Euphoria." I know that it's a very polarizing program. But personally, I'm addicted to the show and keeping up with the crazy lives of these teenagers. And I think what I love about the show is really kind of the world building of the show - the music, the clothes, the stories that the show tells alone in the eyeliner of these characters in a very extreme world. It's a very heightened, exaggerated version of the kind of trials and tribulations that I think an American teenager goes through. And I'm on the ride. I'm on the roller coaster.


THOMPSON: Realism is not necessarily what this show is going for.

CILLS: Yeah. I wouldn't say the show is realistic, but I do think that the show taps into a really kind of weird, unfortunate reality for teenagers today. Like, I feel like teenagers have a very nihilistic sense of humor. Talking about the world ending is not an unusual conversation for, like, a normal 17 year old to have these days. And I think, too, about, like, a character like Rue, you know, being a drug addict. You know, the same generation that's watching Rue on television is also a generation that's watched, you know, artists like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD struggle with their own addictions and lose their lives to addiction. So I think as insane as the show might seem to parents, I think there are real kernels of truth and reality in its storytelling.

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, LaTesha? What do you think of "Euphoria"?

HARRIS: What do I think of "Euphoria"? I will say first that before I am human, I am a Zendaya stan. I have been "Shake It Up."

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I will watch anything with her in it. She's a star. And I watched the first season of "Euphoria" - so excited - when I was living in Alaska, and it was, like, my only connection to the human world. So I was, like, (laughter) starved for it every week.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Interesting.

HARRIS: So I was super excited about the second season. I think those Christmas special episodes are, like, some of the best writing that's ever been done on the show. But now that we're halfway through the second season, I'm like - I just realized I was so much younger when the first season came out. I have a different critical brain. The writing has degraded a lot. Although, I guess, if I revisit, I might see that the writing was never that great to start. And it's a tonally different show. But I understand why it's tonally different.

I just think that every time I finish an episode, I'm underwhelmed and overwhelmed with how much there is to say but how much there isn't really to say at the end of the day. I don't think I hate watching it. But I find myself when I chat about it with my friends - I'm just like, what am I getting out of this show, really? I think, for me, the viewing has turned into, like, a kind of compulsory experience where I have to watch it to stay afloat of tweets and not get things spoiled and, like, be in the conversation. But as I'm watching it, I'm not really enjoying it as much as I used to, which I'm sad about. Like, I really want to just love "Euphoria" 'cause it has a lot going for it. Sometimes I think it has not that much going for it. So I'm very much in the middle about "Euphoria."

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think if nothing else, this show never feels irrelevant. This show is going to give you strong feelings and strong opinions wherever you ultimately come down on it. And as such, I really got drawn into this show sooner than I expected and more than I expected and really was fully able to lock in for the ride along (ph) about end of Episode 2, when it became very clear that every character when faced with a choice was always going to make the worst possible decision. And once I kind of locked into that and was like, OK, this is the show I'm watching. You are watching people make terrible, terrible...


THOMPSON: ...Whatever the most stressful thing you could decide to do is what all these characters are going to do. Then I was able to really lock in with it, and I found myself really emotionally engaged with it. And, you know, we've mentioned those specials. This is a show with huge, sprawling cast. And they're willing to go down rabbit holes for 15, 20 minutes at a time, where it's like, we're really going to dig into Maddy's backstory. And if you don't care as much about Maddy, that can be frustrating, right? But these specials lock in on the most interesting characters in the show and really explore where they're coming from and talk about big ideas. They're not embarking on as many stylistic tricks as the regular episodes do, and that's where, to me, I really fully locked into the show, where I can say I love it. I do think Season 2 has been a roller coaster in kind of the not good way. It's too violent. It's too chaotic. It's too shouty.


SYDNEY SWEENEY: (As Cassie) When you two had broken up for three weeks and three days before we even had sex, so I didn't betray you - plus you guys are terrible for each other, and you know I'm right, and you guys can all judge me if you want, but I do not care. I have never, ever been happier.

THOMPSON: But I kind of look forward to the show being pulled back on the rails a little bit - at least, I hope. We haven't seen the last two episodes of Season 2 as of this conversation. I did want to ask you guys, which subplots and which characters are you most interested in, and which ones are you the least interested in? Hazel, I'm going to start with you.

CILLS: I would say I love Jules...


CILLS: ...Played by Hunter Schafer. One of the things that I love about "Euphoria," it really kind of throws a grenade to all of the kind of stereotypical ideas people might have about teen television and what teen characters look like on teen television. And I think Jules is a really good example of that, where it's - I've never seen a young trans woman depicted in the way that she's depicted on a television show. She's not like a clinical, sanded-down version of, I think, a lot of trans characters that we see on television. She does, you know, go to these kind of seedy motels and she does have sex with older men and is kind of trying to figure out who she is and what her love life looks like. So I'm very invested in her storyline, you know, and also just because we've never seen a storyline like that on television. So she's kind of the No. 1 for me.


HUNTER SCHAFER: (As Jules) My entire life, I've been trying to conquer femininity. And somewhere along the way, I feel like femininity conquered me.

THOMPSON: Anybody who's not doing it for you?

CILLS: Oh, Cal.


CILLS: Cal's not doing it for anybody. Yeah, in the second season, Cal - Nate Jacobs', you know, crazy, destructive father - gets his own kind of romantic storyline with, you know, all of these throwback scenes to his kind of, like, young queer awakening. And it's, like, set to the best music ever. It's like...


CILLS: Yeah.


INXS: (Singing) Don't ask me what you know is true. Don't have to tell you. I love your precious heart.

CILLS: But I was like, I feel like the only reason we're getting these moments is because Sam Levinson really wanted to spend a million dollars on music.


CILLS: You know, kind of like reading, like, a "Peanuts" strip, I don't care about the parents.


CILLS: I just care about the teens and their lives.

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, LaTesha? Favorite and least favorite.

HARRIS: I have to say my favorite is going to go to my girl, Maddy Perez...


HARRIS: ...Played by Alexa Demie. I think just to, like, what Hazel said about the stereotype of teens, the spiteful head cheerleader thing has been done so many times, and at first I was really worried that Maddy was going to go on that route, but with the second season, you just see so much more to her. She just has so many different layers to her. She's like such a sweetheart, but she's been, you know, manipulated and abused by Nate.

THOMPSON: And she has a mean streak.

HARRIS: She has a mean streak, but I think it's well-deserved. When we see her beating up people, it's usually because they're being racist. So she's about what she's about, and she'll pull up whenever she needs to, which I love. I will say, Kat is not my least favorite, but what they're doing with her storyline - you know, you have this really great idea of seeing this fat teenager come to life through being a cam girl in the first season, and then I'm not really sure what happened in the writers room featuring only Sam Levinson. Before this...

THOMPSON: The one-man writers room.

HARRIS: (Laughter) I'm not sure what happened with the second season, but her storyline just getting punted to develop a fake brain disorder and gaslight her boyfriend that cares about her. And just Kat was a favorite of mine, and what they're doing to her in the second season is so disappointing. Justice for Barbie Ferreira. I love you.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah, I'm with you on pretty much all counts. My only thing I would say differently is they have Maddy tied up in this love triangle storyline with Cassie and Nate, and I just don't care.


THOMPSON: And the show spends a lot of time on kind of a pretty standard teen soap, sleeping with the best friend's boyfriend stuff.

CILLS: It's "Betty And Veronica."

THOMPSON: It's "Betty And Veronica," and it's not super interesting when you have so much life and death and identity and who am I and do I want to live and the stakes elsewhere in the show. I mean, Nate's personality raises the stakes, but that love triangle to me isn't terribly interesting. I also want to throw out one more shoutout, which is literally, I cannot imagine a TV show or movie that wouldn't be improved by the addition of Colman Domingo.


THOMPSON: Any time Colman Domingo's face pops up, I'm like, this show has been improved by 30 to 70%.


THOMPSON: And so he plays Ali, who is Rue's sponsor. And one of the specials is just the two of them talking at a diner, and it is absolutely riveting.


COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Ali) Who do you want to be when you leave this Earth?

ZENDAYA: (As Rue) I'm not really sure I follow.

DOMINGO: (As Ali) You said you weren't going to be here much longer. How do you want your mom and sister to remember you?

ZENDAYA: (As Rue) As someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn't.

THOMPSON: I think, LaTesha, you said it's - the two specials have some of the best writing that this show has.


THOMPSON: Part of it is it is extraordinarily well-acted, and I think that makes the writing really sing.

HARRIS: And I think also the Christmas special with Jules, Hunter Schafer wrote for that as well.


HARRIS: And I think that's the first time someone other than Sam Levinson got writing credits. And you can tell, because it's a phenomenal episode. It explores so much about the psyche, about trans identity, and it's just so genuine and heartfelt. And Colman Domingo in this show is doing, like, God's wonders.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Like, every time he's on screen, like, I am just captivated, I am enraptured. He is - for the couple of scenes he's in, he's just bringing it so hard. I love it.

THOMPSON: And I wanted to get to some of the controversies around this show, some of the conversations around nudity. This show has a lot of nudity, a fair bit of violence, a lot of drug use. Do you feel like this show is glorifying the transgressive behavior that it's depicting?

CILLS: So I would say in terms of, you know, its depiction of drug abuse, I feel like, especially with the second season, it's very clear that the show is not glorifying drug abuse. I think Zendaya gives an incredible performance - a really difficult performance to watch, frankly, of being in the throes of addiction. And it sort of reminds me, this is like "Trainspotting" for teenagers.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

CILLS: But then you get to the scene where he has to get clean, and he sees the baby on the ceiling. And you're like, anything about this film that I thought was cool is actually terrifying. Kids are growing up in an era where anything that they're watching on "Euphoria" they've probably already seen on the internet or they've seen in the lives of the celebrities and the influencers that they follow or, you know, their friends. I think that the show is doing a really great job of not glorifying and sort of taking viewers along the ride into the future of what, you know, doing those kinds of drugs can do to you in the long term.

And then in terms of nudity and the fact that this is a show depicting minors - but I think it's really important for everyone watching to remember that the actors are not minors. It should go without saying, but I've certainly seen discourse where, you know, people seem to think that, you know, nudity or sex scenes are inherently exploitative. And I think we have to take the actors at their word when they say, I feel comfortable doing this. I agreed to do this. The sex scenes and the nudity, it does tell a story in some parts. Yes, sometimes, it does seem a little bit gratuitous. But I just think that it's an important point to remember that the actors agreed to do this, and they feel comfortable doing it.

HARRIS: I agree with everything you said regarding the drug use, Hazel. I don't think it glorifies it at all. In fact, it makes me terrified. I feel like, regarding the nudity, I think - so four different actresses have shared their experiences feeling free and comfortable to ask Sam to reduce their nudity on the show. If they see it in the script, they're like, I'm uncomfortable with this because of this reason or I don't want to do this because of this reason. And Sam, you know, is generous and changes his script to abide by them. On one hand, I understand that these actors feel comfortable enough in their workplace to talk to their showrunner and collaborate with him on how they appear on screen. But the fact that there's just this much nudity that's making multiple people uncomfortable enough to bring it up at the workplace makes me pause. Like, it's not seeing the nudity itself. It's just the fact that Sam Levinson is committed to having these characters nude and putting them in weird positions while nude. I don't know.

THOMPSON: Well, I kind of want to round out the discussion by asking a question that one of our producers, Candice Lim, brought up, which was, who is this show for exactly? Who - is it teenagers? Is it parents of teenagers? Is it people like yourselves who, like, have been teenagers more recently than I have? Do you think of yourselves as its target audience? And if not, who is?

CILLS: I mean, I would say, when I was a teenager, I would have watched this show, and I think it's because it builds on depictions of teen sexuality and teen experience that I really appreciate. You know, in "Euphoria," I see hints of Gregg Araki's, you know, films - "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy" (ph). And I see hints of the U.K. show "Skins," which I loved as a teenager.


CILLS: The show is extreme, but it has predecessors. I think the show is for teenagers. I certainly don't think it's for parents of teenagers.


CILLS: And, Stephen, I would love to know your thoughts as someone who is a parent of a teenager because it is hard to watch and it's extreme, but I think it's for teenagers. Like, I think that's the audience - if your parents are willing to pay for an HBO subscription.


HARRIS: I think - as someone who was on Tumblr for most of my adolescence, I think it is for me, unfortunately. The target audience is for people who spend a lot of time on the internet and want to have a little fun being on the internet. I think that's why the viewing experience is so, like, Twitter-based and community-based, and you get those spoilers by, like, Monday morning. Like, it's in conversation with people who love talking about things on the internet.

THOMPSON: All right. Yeah. I mean, Hazel, you asked my thoughts as the parent of the teenagers. I mean, my main thought as a parent that came up - I mean, I definitely had this feeling like, wow, this is somebody trying to imagine, what is every parent's worst nightmare? And let me put that on the screen.

CILLS: You can't sleep at night after watching this.

THOMPSON: I definitely had the thought repeatedly of, like, why are these kids just out all the time? Like, she just got out of rehab. Are you - and you're like, oh, I'm going to be gone for the next two days, mom. Don't worry about where I am. You know, so I had a certain amount of, like, these kids are much more mobile than my kids, but I still just enjoy it as drama. And any time it is just reflecting on what life is like for these characters, it pulls me in, and I can appreciate it. And there are enough universal concepts. Like, drug abuse and addiction is not exclusive to teenagers, obviously. A lot of the issues around, you know, identity and queerness are not exclusive to teenagers by any means. It's not exclusive to teenagers in this show. So I found enough of it relatable and interesting sort of aside from any relevance it might have to my own life or my own family's life because, as we said at the top of this discussion, hyper-realism is not what this show is going for. I think we can agree, this is - the show is a very mixed bag...

CILLS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...By design.


THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Euphoria." I'm guessing you have thoughts. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to you both for being here.

CILLS: Thank you, Stephen.

HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

THOMPSON: It is a pleasure. One last thing before we go - we are going to be talking about "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," and we want your questions. You can email us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, you can send us a voice message with your question to pchh@npr.org. Now, that is "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" and not the "Bel-Air" reboot. Of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, and we will see you all tomorrow.

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