8:30 am EDT, July 10, 2019

The best parts of ‘Euphoria’ are also its tamest

Euphoria is just as controversial and salacious as it’s been advertised, but the most shocking thing about it is how tender its storytelling can be.

We’re four episodes into Euphoria’s inaugural season and I’m still not sure what kind of show it’s trying to be.

Is it meant to shock us with its obscenity, with its tendency to go there? Because in that regard, it’s exactly the kind of sensationalized show it’s been reported to be — one that seems to rejoice in its literal and figurative dicks.

Euphoria gives us a protracted look at a high school locker room in all its nakedness, an informative slideshow of dick pics, and a main character who could only ever be described as a prick of the highest order.

Is it a show meant to show the true state of adolescence in our world? Because Euphoria — while being as controversial as its been advertised — is also an accurate glimpse at a Post 9/11 generation, one who grew up with social media and school lockdowns as part of their academic experience.

As a middle school English teacher of many years who was privy to my student’s stories and gossip (oftentimes even when I didn’t want it), I was… let’s say saddened or upset, but not surprised at the teenage journeys presented on screen.

Or is Euphoria meant to be neither of these and just be a journey into the absurd? Because it — at times — rather absurd, like hard R version of Riverdale.

Nate’s menace runs the gamut from genuinely terrifying to almost campy, Kat finds self-empowerment from a micro-penis and Cassie takes a very interesting ride on carousel because — ? I’m still trying to figure out the storytelling purpose of that last one.

Euphoria veers wildly from one identity to the next — at times a show that wants to shock us, to a show that tries to level with us, and then a show which attempts to titillate us.

But sometimes — at its very best moments — Euphoria is a show that gives us a tender portrayal of adolescent friendship and first love.

And it is this last type of show that I wish we got more of.

Woven in between scenes which feature Nate’s best Patrick Bateman impression, the business practices of a 10 year old drug dealer, and a vast array of trippy drug sequences and seedy sex scenes are stories about the strong bonds of friendship between teenage girls and the overwhelming headiness of first love.

There’s nothing particularly shocking or salacious about either of these things – they certainly wouldn’t grab your attention the way a headline about a scene with 30 dicks in it might – but it is these very storylines in Euphoria which are the most deserving of attention.

The female friendships in this show – though frequently taking a back seat to more dramatic storylines involving questionable boys and shitty boyfriends – are genuine and delightful to watch. They aren’t moved along by the catty pettiness which so many TV shows seem to delight in, but instead highlight the way these girls support and care about one another despite their differences.

More than that, the friendship between these teenage girls show the girls actually having fun, enjoying each other’s friendship and reveling in being young and carefree. Kat and Jules’ friendship is a delight to watch, as is Jules and Rue’s, and Maddy and Cassie’s molly-fueled time at the town carnival together in the most recent episode was one of my favorite parts.

Euphoria – when it lets itself indulge in human emotion rather than manufactured drama – gives us a picture of female friendship that is extraordinary and affecting in its familiarity.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that it’s when the girls separate from one another throughout the show that their storylines tend to drift into the show’s more scandalizing and shocking tendencies.

While the show takes a rather blasé stance on nudity and sex, it treats the slow slide into genuine affection with a tenderness and sensitivity that almost feels like it belongs on another show.

The gradual build of Jules and Rue’s relationship has been one of the most consistently strong parts of Euphoria — and the one in which the show uses the most restraint.

While Jules and Rue’s individual storylines frequently swerve into the sensational and controversial, their shared narrative arc has been – at turns – both relatable and commonplace.

Jules begins Euphoria as the rather mysterious new girl in town, while Rue is some mix of pariah and bad girl. When Jules cuts her own arm in a display of absolute do-not-fuck-with-me at McKay’s party in the first episode, it’s absolutely game over for Rue, who immediately finds herself drawn to Jules (although she might have been anyway, as Fezco initially describes Jules as someone Rue would be friends with).

It’s not the most conventional of meet-cutes, but somehow it seems to fit who both these characters are.

From there, the two embark on a fast and deeply connected friendship, all-consuming and wholly committed. Jules’ sunniness counteracts Rue’s tendency towards sullenness, while Rue helps to ground Jules when she’s in danger of getting lost in daydreams.

Jules is a person who helps Rue embrace her emotion and vulnerability. As a person who has long sought to dampen her emotions and harden herself, this is a dramatic turn for Rue.

More than this, Jules is someone who pushes Rue to fight her demons; she is someone who makes Rue want to.

Amidst the cacophony of Euphoria’s louder storylines, Jules and Rue’s storyline is quiet and soft, both literally and figuratively. Most of their scenes take place away from the tumult of parties or insistent buzz of high school – in the quiet of Jules’ bedroom as Rue wraps her bleeding arm or as Jules pleads with Rue not to put her through any more trauma; in an open field during lunch or riding through an orange grove on a sunlit day.

Even the fallout of the kiss in Jules room is soft (between the two, that is – Rue’s individual fallout is loud and heartbreaking).

Between the two, there are no dramatic fights, no wild declarations, no loud pronouncements during their reunion post-kiss. Instead, there is a tight hug away from the hubbub of the carnival, with Rue’s younger sister, Gia, quietly saying, “I think Rue’s in love with her.”

The kiss shared between Rue and Jules at the end of the most recent episode — complete with a dizzying look back at their more tender moments — felt more momentous than it had any right to given the fact that we’ve been with these characters a mere four episodes.

A large part of that has to do with the performances of Zendaya and Hunter Schafer (in her first acting role!), both of whom are bringing their A game to every single episode of Euphoria and whose chemistry is absolutely tremendous – genuine and tender and affectionate in all the best ways. If there isn’t an Emmy nomination for one or both of them next awards season, there is no justice in this world.

But part of that is also because of the writing and the narrative work for their shared storyline. Rather than dipping into melodrama or vulgarity, the scenes with and between Rue and Jules have been wonderfully understated. They are ordinary scenes of two girls finding each another, figuring out what they mean to one another and grappling with just what exactly to do about it.

It’s so relatable, so ordinary it might even be mundane – except that in a show like Euphoria, it is the mundane which becomes shocking, the commonplace which becomes the most moving.

I don’t know where Euphoria will end up in terms of its identity crisis – and perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Euphoria’s search for identity is meant to mirror its own character’s journeys, and I’m meant to enjoy the process rather than search for an endpoint.

I can live with that.

I just hope that along the way, Euphoria manages to continue to carve out those tender moments of softness. If it is the shocking moments that give us all something to talk about, it’s those softer scenes which actually have something interesting to say.

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