Skip to main content

HBO’s Euphoria is basking in its record-breaking viewership, ranked as the number one most in-demand show in the U.S. last month. Though popular is an understatement with 13.1 million viewers, calling the show a “Sunday-night darling” is quite the misnomer.

At first glance, Euphoria is your typical coming-of-age drama series set in high school. IMDB describes the plot as a group of high school students that navigate love and friendships. But love couldn’t be harder to find in Euphoria. The show spends a bulk of its airtime on the darkest experiences teens could possibly encounter, such as severe drug addictions, sexual insecurities, depression and anxiety, revenge porn, and child rape, all the while showcasing full-frontal male and female nudity and graphic sex scenes. And there’s no powerful takeaway making it all worth it. As the AV Club dubbed the show’s first season, “HBO’s Euphoria is a gorgeous, empty spectacle.” I’d say, worse than empty, it’s filled with damaging content that could cause damaging effects offscreen.

This may explain why the Emmy-winning lead actor Zendaya shared on social media that she doesn’t technically recommend this show for everyone.

“I know I’ve said this before, but I do want to reiterate to everyone that Euphoria is for mature audiences,” Zendaya said. “This season, maybe even more than the last, is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch. Please only watch it if you feel comfortable. Take care of yourself and know that either way you are still loved and I can still feel your support. All my love, Daya.”

In the context of other HBO shows, the explicit content of Euphoria is unremarkable. What’s concerning some, including Zendaya herself, is that the show is catered to young people.

Intense dysfunction, little reprieve

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched Euphoria—you could say I followed Zendaya’s advice—but just by reading plot summaries, I’ve come to view Euphoria as far from being a positive show for teens, or even a harmless guilty pleasure. Instead, it takes the worst possible harms that could be done to kids and displays them graphically—without added value for mature audiences to gain, and loads for young audiences to lose.

I’m not alone in this thinking.

As Kaitlin Reilly wrote at Refinery29 when the show first dropped, “it may be [director Sam] Levinson’s intention to comment on what the digital age is doing to teen’s sex lives, but the line between commenting on porn and becoming it is blurry. . . . Most of the young women of Euphoria are sexualized from the jump, given little initial backstory but plenty of screen time to hook up.”

By Reilly’s assessment, it’s hard to say which is worse: peddling sexualized teen imagery to teens themselves . . . or to adults to look at? “That is, err, uncomfortable to think about,” Reilly writes. “Is Euphoria actually depicting teens as they really are, or is it driving home the point that teens should be having, or at least are having, the type of sex seen in pornography? And why, exactly, should adults want to watch it?”

“No matter which way you swing it, there’s something weird about an adult show that prominently features teenagers having sex,” Angel Aduwo wrote at the college paper Oberlin Review after the season finale this year. “While all the actors who have sex scenes are at least 23 years old, the fact remains that Euphoria has a serious issue with oversexualizing teenagers, even if said teenagers are played by adults.”

What happens when kids watch kids doing destructive things

“While critics will say Euphoria is merely entertainment, they conveniently ignore that audiences are influenced by what they watch—none more so than children,” Parents Television and Media Council President Tim Winter said in a statement. “Hollywood frequently proclaims their impact on the viewer when it’s an impact they endorse. That’s why it is inexcusable to feature high school-aged characters—and yes, they’re still children—engaged in some of the worst situations humanity holds.”

Netflix learned this when graphic scenes depicting suicide in the series Thirteen Reasons Why were found to cause an uptick in teen suicide rates one month after its release, resulting in scenes being edited out later.

In Euphoria, lead character Rue (Zendaya) simulates for viewers how to use drugs without getting caught. Depictions of high-risk behavior toward teen audiences aren’t without consequences.

Director Sam Levinson admitted to basing the entire show off of his own experience with a drug addiction, but that shouldn’t give any reassurance to the audience—only more questions.

“I just wrote myself as a teenager,” Levinson told Entertainment Weekly. “I think those feelings and memories, they’re still extremely accessible to me. So it’s not a hard reach. I just write myself and what I was feeling and what I was going through when I was younger and I was dealing with addiction.”

Though this story is personal, Levinson doesn’t seem to care about the response this show may receive.

“I’m kind of inside of [Euphoria] in a sense where I’m inside the making of it and I tend not to think about the response to it,” Levinson said.

In the end, Levinson’s script-writing and directing choices feel careless, not taking into account what’s actually projected on screen. This is reflected in some responses from his actresses.

Sydney Sweeney, who plays teen Cassie, is filmed topless in several episodes. Sweeney said in an interview that she pushed back against being nude in some scenes that Levinson had scripted—adding that Levinson readily accepted her suggestions. A second actress, Minka Kelly, also objected to being filmed suggestively in one scene, prompting Levinson to rewrite it. Still, Winter notes, the show not only depicts but “fixates” on nude teen characters, making it eerily close to peddling porn to children (which is bad for brain development, not to mention illegal).

In season one, a 16-year-old character named Kat (Barbie Fereira) peddles herself to adult males on a porn site as a “cam girl” and feels empowered by it. In moments like this, Euphoria is quite graphically depicting the real-world exploitation of sex trafficking taking place on porn sites . . . except it doesn’t identify the exploitation by name and acts like it’s just kids being kids these days.

Not real or relatable

In its defense, one might say Euphoria is aiming to depict what teens are experiencing, that it offers teens a story to relate to and ultimately feel understood by in a despairing world, showing us real life in high school. But this show is still far from reality.

Yes, sadly, some teens struggle with drug addictions and pornography, but in reality, there’s hope for recovery. And restoration. And renewal, and healing, and everything that this show is missing.

The only glimpse of hope I’ve read about is the fact that Rue ends season two stepping away from drugs. But does that make up for the enormous amounts of sexual exploitation and destruction depicted? Viewers may argue that they’re not alone in feeling hopeless and purposeless, but they still feel hopeless and purposeless. In the season finale, one hears Zendaya’s voice singing a song entitled “I’m Tired,” which is basically a gospel tune with a message of giving up on life.

Ultimately, Euphoria characters are neglected in numerous ways, and as teens watch them continue to exist neglected and alone, it only builds a pseudo-reality that neglect should somehow be acceptable.

But “this so-called ‘entertainment’ [comes] at a devastating cost to young viewers,” Winter says. “They are being desensitized to child rape and sexual exploitation, illicit drug abuse, graphic teen sex, full frontal teen nudity, and pornography use—and it is portrayed as a normal part of the teenage experience.” 

It's fair to say HBO is not only depicting neglect; it’s partaking in it. That's not my idea of entertainment.