The scene was just seven words: “Leslie and Rue fight in the hallway.”
“So we’re thinking a little yelling, slamming a door, call it a day,” Zendaya recalled while speaking with IndieWire.
But then, driving to set that morning, writer-director Sam Levinson had an idea. Why not try a little improvisation, and see where it goes?
“So I talked to Nika [King], talked to Z,” Levinson said, using shorthand for his already mononymous star, Zendaya. They shot the first take without any improv — just a mother and daughter yelling before the latter slams her bedroom door — “and it was good, it was interesting,” but Levinson wanted to “push it farther.” “However dark she goes, you go darker,” Levinson remembered telling his actors.
The result is what viewers see in the premiere: Rue (Zendaya), a drug-addicted teen, being confronted about her problem and reacting with raw animosity — knocking a framed picture off the wall and using a shard of the broken glass to threaten her own mother.
“It got to a place where it felt so fucking real — where she’s coming at her with the glass — and it was one of those moments where the entire crew […] just walked away from the set for 15 minutes [when it was over],” Levinson said.
“That day took a toll,” Zendaya said.
In a nutshell, that’s what “Euphoria” is striving for: an intense, authentic experience that connects with its audience on a personal level. But despite the extreme reactions to some of its more abrasive scenes, that intensity is designed to help more than provoke. If this scene and the many others like it merely make people angry, they’re not doing their job. “Euphoria” can serve as an introduction to a world some viewers don’t know is out there, as well as a connection for the people who are already living in it so they don’t have to feel alone. Over a first season both gripping and alienating, here’s how “Euphoria” is trying to help teens — even when they’re not watching.
If Not Teens, Who’s “Euphoria” Made For?
“Euphoria” creates a brand-new world for anyone who hasn’t lived it, which is an easy path to controversy. It can be a lot to take in, and the consistent depictions of teen sex, drug use, and violence only add to the uncomfortable experience — HBO’s weekly episode rollout doubles as a much-need breather between sessions.
But for others, the onscreen drama mirrors a life they’re all too familiar with, making for a casual viewing experience or even a cathartic one. They know the high schoolers in “Euphoria” are out there, whether they’re friends, family, or people they know through the internet.
With that split in mind, the question becomes: Who is “Euphoria” made for? It’s made by young people, about a younger generation. Zendaya was 21 when she shot the series, Levinson in his early thirties. Still, no one is claiming the show is aimed at a teen audience — not the creator, star, or HBO president Casey Bloys. But “Euphoria” is still trying to help them, whether they watch it or not.
“I hope it creates a certain dialogue between parents and their kids,” Levinson said. “I don’t think this is a show for people under 17, but…”
“…but if your parent wants to have a conversation about it, that’s good,” Zendaya said.
“Or if you’re going to watch it anyway, and you have a feeling your kid is going to watch it anyway, then it might be good to have a conversation with them,” Levinson said.
“[People say] ‘Oh, it’s so shocking!’ To me, it doesn’t feel that way,” Zendaya said. “Because, yeah, I know someone who had that issue, and my homie went through that, and damn, that’s just like so-and-so. It’s only shocking if it’s maybe not your personal experience. Maybe you had a different path and you never met anyone who went through any of that — but I highly doubt it.”
How the Internet Created an Unknowable Generation
The dividing line is actually a worldwide web: “Euphoria” is about teens who grow up online. It shows how a generation lives and learns via an unfiltered, constantly accessible internet, which is a reality past generations didn’t go through .
“I think that’s what makes this generation different,” Levinson said. “It’s a fucking totally different world. There is no compass. There is no road map. There is no one who can provide any advice that is actually that applicable. When 60 – 70 percent of all interpersonal conversations and relationships exist through text messaging or social media, it’s hard to get advice from a parent who didn’t grow up in that world.”
Levinson, who based much of Rue’s journey on his own experience with anxiety, addiction, and depression, said he thinks this disconnect creates a feeling of isolation for kids. They can only talk to each other, rather than an older, more experienced person who understands what they’re going through.
“I think that’s part of why, when you look at young people, anxiety rates are higher [and] depression is higher,” he said. “There’s no one to talk to about it, and at the same time, the internet inherently is so fucking explicit you can’t really put it on TV or in film. That’s what kind of excited me about HBO. They might actually let me get away with this. They might let me portray it in a way that feels honest.”
So far, “Euphoria” has shown teens hooking up, online and off, drinking to the point of blacking out, and taking a wide array of drugs. The show snagged headlines early on for a (largely humorous) penis montage, where one of the main characters walked through a boys’ locker room and tried to avoid making eye contact with his friends’ privates. Later episodes have shown grown men masturbating to teen girls via online chatrooms.
Levinson shoots all this with a quick pace and constant momentum. Emotions are absorbed more than they’re discussed, even with Zendaya’s narration giving each episode a clear framework through one pivotal character.
“It’s less about the dialogue,” he said. “I wanted to deal with how hard it is to articulate what you’re feeling [at that age]. It’s maybe just a couple of lines, a dolly shot, the way that it’s lit, an expression, and that’s it. We’re out. I wanted the inarticulateness of it to be the framework of the whole piece itself. […] So what would normally be, you know, scene, scene, scene, scene, brief montage, scene, scene, scene, I wanted to invert it and allow it to be this thing that was just flowing, moving, and at the mercy of Rue’s pattern of thinking.”
Going back to that seven-word scene, Levinson wrote his scripts to be read by the very people he was writing about, just as he styled his episodes to encapsulate the intense feeling of being a confused teen.
“I try not to write slug lines and all that shit because it just slows the reading down,” Levinson said. about his scripts for “Euphoria.” “It’s just camera angles, a brief description, and that’s it.”
“I don’t like reading scripts, to be honest with you. I find it very difficult to get through them,” Zendaya said. And when she was looking for her next project, she wasn’t looking for “good writing,” as so many other actors say they’re searching for; she was looking for “a feeling.”
“Maybe I was trippin’,” she said. “Maybe I was hyping up this feeling in my head, that you’re supposed to get when you read something. […] Then ‘Euphoria’ got sent to me and I read it faster than I ever read anything.”
All of this has led to a show made by a cast of recent ex-teens and a young showrunner. But the debate rages on whether “Euphoria” honestly depicts the teen experience or just some teens’ experiences; whether teens should watch “Euphoria” to see themselves and feel less alone, or whether watching such behavior only reinforces its normality. Are these experiences inescapable or influential? Is “Euphoria” commenting on a scary new world teens are facing every day, or merely creating more fear through provocative content teens can’t help but absorb?
“I hope people really feel something — whoever really truly needs it; needs to see that they’re not alone, that their experiences are valid, and what they’re going through is real, and that they’re not the only person in the world that’s living with what they’re living with,” Zendaya said. “That’s what we want. When you’re going through shit, you often feel like you’re alone, that the world is against you, and that’s what life does. So it’s important to know that you aren’t. I just hope that whoever truly needs it will find it.”
The tagline for “Euphoria” is what Zendaya referenced, and consciously so: “Feel something.” That was the goal, and it’s definitely working.
“Euphoria” airs its season finale Sunday, August 4 at 10 p.m. on HBO. The series has already been renewed for Season 2.