The beginning of “Euphoria” feels like a test.
“I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own primordial pool…” intones a deadpan voiceover as a fetus pulses in “the cruel cervix” of its mother, before cutting to actual news footage of the 9/11 disaster. The voice, belonging to disaffected teen Rue (Zendaya), reveals that the terrorist attack happened three days before she was born, the implication being that disaster has followed her all her life and that she grew up at a time when everyone around her was steeling themselves for the next. Her narration of how she got to the point we meet her, grieving her father and still addicted to opiates after a near fatal overdose, feels like writer/director Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation”) took the inspiration of the original Israeli series, multiplied it by a “what if ‘Trainspotting,’ but starring a teen girl?’ prompt and went wild. The premiere careens so chaotically, and is so aggressively jarring that it would be completely understandable if viewers tuned out just to avoid the sheer stress of it all.
But that would, as it turns out, be a shame. The following three episodes made available for review are much more focused and confident in their style. Levinson learns how to use the disorienting haze of living in between rollercoaster drug trips and harsh sobriety to sharp, bracing effect. If the premiere is a dare for audiences to stick with it, the rest of the series seeks to uncover the truth behind each character’s tryhard facades. It might start as “Trainspotting,” but it becomes a 2019 era “Skins” soon enough.
It’s also notable that “Euphoria” is HBO’s first foray into teen drama, and while the genre has definitely gotten darker, more explicit, and even more violent in recent years (see: “Riverdale,” “Pretty Little Liars”), HBO’s version is still startling in its enthusiasm to embrace all of the above. (It’s also frankly wild to see a premium cable show, about teens or otherwise, immediately show more explicit male nudity than most any other HBO series, period.)
It’s not a coincidence that “Euphoria” gets better the more it reveals about its sprawling cast of bored, angry, confused, passionate teens. There’s Kat (Barbie Ferreira), whose insecurity and lack of sexual experience make her a joke at school and inspire her to seek out more fulfilling relationships online. There’s Nate (Jacob Elordi), a handsome jock who’s taken all the worst lessons from his hyper-masculine father (a very unsettling Eric Dane) and can barely hold onto his own rage before it spills over, especially when his on and off girlfriend Maddie (Alexa Demie) steps out of line. There’s Maddie’s best friend Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), a sweet people-pleaser who quickly learns that her classmates both value and disdain her using her sexuality. (Side note: this role also proves that Sweeney’s one hell of a shapeshifter between her deft turns in this, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Everything Sucks” and “Sharp Objects.”)
And of course there’s Rue, whose drug problem isn’t solved by the end of any single episode; in fact, she often works against getting better. The show never lets us forget that she’s an addict whose every choice is dictated by the drugs she so desperately craves, which often makes her perspective a very hard one in which to live, even just for an hour at a time. It’s a complicated and risky role for an actor like Zendaya, who came up through the Disney Channel and boasts a young fanbase that will undoubtedly be unsettled by this turn. But she hones Rue’s thousand yard stare and the sporadic, heartbreaking cracks of light peeking through with such care that she’s often breathtaking.
This especially holds true when Rue feels the pain of letting down her little sister (Storm Reid of “A Wrinkle in Time”) or as she gets closer to Jules (Hunter Schafer), an intriguing new girl whose very presence tilts the suburban world of “Euphoria” through no fault of her own. Jules is a trans girl who loves pink and clothes that look ripped out of the pages of a manga comic; she’s a romantic with disappointingly limited options. As played with charming ease by Schafer, Jules’ wide open heart becomes a surprising inspiration for those who come into contact with it — most of all Rue. The way Levinson tracks Rue’s shifting perspective, particularly around Jules, makes for some downright gorgeous sequences.
This show isn’t an easy watch, nor a particularly pleasant one. It’s often brash and blunt, defiantly refusing to tie up loose ends or let its characters take easy ways out. But just like the teens it depicts with such staggering candor, once you get past its immediate attempts to hold the audience at arms length, “Euphoria” has an undeniable pull that makes it too intriguing to ignore.
“Euphoria” premieres Sunday, June 16 at 10 pm on HBO.