WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Rue Bennett (Zendaya) is a 17-year-old struggling with OCD, drug addiction and a raging self-identity crisis. One day the storm clouds break: Jules Vaughan (transgender actress and LGBTQ activist Hunter Schafer) arrives in her well-groomed California neighborhood. Jules, immediately, has to deal with her own major crises, notably high school jock and sociopath Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) and his pyscho-perv father Carl Jacobs (Eric Dane, "Grey's Anatomy"). The show is based on an Israeli hit, and written by Sam Levinson, son of Barry.
MY SAY "Euphoria" can be seen, or experienced, a couple of ways — as either an angry, jumbled, plotless screed or, because this is HBO which usually knows what it's doing, the bleakest show you're likely to see this summer.
The latter seems indisputable. These kids born after the turn of the century in a privileged corner of the country have all been swept up and contained in that pen which has contained the rest of us to varying degrees — the internet — where the most desolate human impulses find purchase, then thrive. In "Euphoria," in fact, the internet has been weaponized: So-called heteronormative feelings have become toxic, or turned into agents of torture. Virtual sex predominates, and real sex is stylized on what someone's seen on Pornhub. "Euphoria" can be, and often is, aggressively dystopic.
But the bleakest show you're likely to see can also be a screaming headache for anyone over the age of 40 (or even 30). "Euphoria" is craftily designed to appeal to a specific cohort only, and is filled with the sublingual forms of expression so specific to this cohort. Think, in other words, texts, and sexts, lots of them, plus music, and lots of that. (The score and soundtrack, in fact, are pretty good.) "Euphoria" wants to repel middle-aged viewers, mindful that they tend to bring their own frumpy moral judgments, or else appropriate that which is cool and make it uncool. (Think Facebook.) This show is really about alienation, and how the wellsprings of alienation are exacerbated by everything and everyone that surrounds this generation — beginning with (who else?) parents.
Because "Euphoria" is so shrewdly conceived, and often so visually and sonically striking, it's easy to overlook the fact that there's no organizing principle. Characters are introduced, then dropped. Scenes begin, then meander, then end. Segues, at least here, are for suckers. You have entered the mind of a teenager. Best get used to that, too.
"Euphoria" also looks at moments like a show with a lot of expensive cooks — big-name cooks with big ideas and big egos, like co-producers Drake and his manager, Future the Prince, no doubt Zendaya herself, and the Israeli contingent (creators Ron Leshem and Daphna Levin) who know what worked so well on Israeli TV, but perhaps not on American TV. That could be a reason why "Euphoria" — initially at least — is so resoundingly downbeat. It's an outsider's view of what must seem like to many an adrift and bereft country.
Could this be a hit? Absolutely. A dud? That's a possibility too, but hit seems the better bet. "Euphoria" certainly knows how to grab attentions — the right ones, anyway.
BOTTOM LINE A series that smells like teen spirit, where everyone feels "stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us." It sure does that, at least sporadically.