Why Did The Emmys Force Me To Write About Zendaya Again?
Euphoria: A Series Where Overrated is Too Good A Word
I would have been fine never writing another article about Euphoria ever again. But given the fact it is a rating phenomena and that it managed to get nominated for Best Drama by the Emmys this past week, I feel I have little choice. Euphoria is not going anywhere anytime soon. And because of that, I feel compelled to write about it because its success fundamentally baffles me.
I considered at one point making this a shorter article as part of my reactions to this year’s Emmy nominations: a statement where I critiqued the Emmys for doubling down on dark and unrelenting series that emphasized style over substance. But there’s a fundamental difference in the recognition of series like Succession and Ozark, which I have referred to be repeatedly as being merely immensely overrated. Much as I find myself unable to appreciate them, I can to an extent understand why they are admired by critics and audiences — they have exceptional casts, many of whom are doing superb work that I can respect even if I think it is inferior to other dramas on the air. The raves by critics and now the ten Emmy nominations for Euphoria boggle the mind because I can’t fundamentally grasp why the Emmys has chosen to recognize a series that is purely and simply an exercise in style over substance. There’s no there, there.
I realize many will disagree with this and I admit to only having watched four episodes total of the series, so let me express why I fundamentally can’t see what so many people are seeing about Euphoria.
When I reviewed the series in January, I made a reference to a MAD TV sketch that came out in the late 1990s when the WB was at its peak at producing teenager and college focused series such as Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls and Felicity along with nearly half a dozen imitators. The sketches were all referred to as a mock show called ‘Pretty White Kids with Problems”. This was very funny because that was the makeup of so many of the series on the WB — it was teenagers suffering the perils of their high school lives and there really were no minorities to speak of. And if you delete the word ‘white’ from the title of the skit, that’s basically all that Euphoria is.
Now I grant you the problems of drug addiction, sexual molestation and beating your fellow classmates are more severe than the problems that Dawson Leary and Rory Gilmore had to deal with over their runs. And I will acknowledge that Sunnydale may have been on a Hellmouth but it didn’t seem to have any slums. But take away the intensity and how every single situation is amplified to a thousand are these problems really any worse than what the WB kids were dealing with? Hell, half the kids on these shows were focusing on saving money to get to college or a job. Most of them were working class or even poor. These kids are extremely rich and don’t even seem inclined to even go to class in the high school they attend. Their problems honestly don’t seem that realistic.
I’m getting to Rue, which is a whole bigger set of problems. There were quite a few teenage alcoholics and drug addicts on 1990s television: a couple of characters on Dawson’s Creek had to go to rehab and there was a lot of drugs and alcohol during Beverly Hills 90210. To an extent, teenage drug addiction has become a more prominent theme during the era of Peak TV: we saw characters on The Wire wrestle and surrender to it; but Lip and Fiona Gallagher on Shameless both eventually had go to AA in later seasons, and as we found out Kevin Pearson on This is Us spent many of his teenage years struggling with an addiction to painkillers. But the difference is that, despite all of their struggles, they fundamentally wanted to get better and most of them had far fewer resources available to them. Rue, by contrast, gets out of rehab in the Pilot, spends the first season openly flaunted the idea of sobriety and spends much of Season 2, telling her sponsor and her drug dealer, she has no interesting in staying clean. (I know things changed in Season 2; I’m talking in generalities here.) All of the others characters I’ve listed struggle with their demons; Rue not only doesn’t put up a fight but seems actually hoping for them to win. When your drug dealer has a more accurate view of the world of addiction then you do, you are messed up in a way that speaks to your lack of characters.
And I’m not saying that all drug and alcohol addicts need to be sympathetic to be interesting characters. On the contrary, the Gallaghers made it fundamentally difficult for you to like them despite their struggles. And there have been some horrible characters in Peak TV who are downright villainous even though they struggle with sobriety. I speak of Christopher on The Sopranos who was reprehensible in so many ways, but who I felt empathy before because at least part of his addiction was because his path was fundamentally out of his hands because of Tony. On House of Cards, Doug Stamper was a ruthless machine in every respect but his presence in AA gave a dimension to his character that made him one of the few admirable characters on the series — and I say that knowing everything he did in the service of the Underwoods. When he gave into addiction during Season 3, I was personally heartbroken for him even though I knew everything he had done.
No matter how times I try to look at Rue with sympathy or empathy I can’t. Rue is fundamentally a selfish teenager who has far more resources then, say, any of the corner boys on The Wire and throws it away the same way she would a discarded coffee cup. I know that Sam Levenson may be telling an autobiographical story of his own struggles with substance abuse, and if that’s the case it’s another reason I never want to be in the same room with him. I don’t care if Rue ever gets clean for good. I don’t care if she OD’s in an alley. And I can not for the life of me understand why millions seem to fundamentally give a damn to see how things turn out. Zendaya is very attractive and she is a very good actress, but no matter how hard she tries she can’t make her character seem like an actual human being. But that’s not much of a shock, because with the exception of Colman Domingo as Rue’s sponsor, there isn’t a character on all of Euphoria with more than one dimension. They don’t merit the term cliché either. What they are is what you get when a writer thinks he has original ideas for characters and rather than develop them, has them erupt in whatever verbal diarrhea he has Zendaya say to audience rather than just let a flashback speak for itself. Until now, The X-Files was the prime example of a series that gave its characters long, rambling monologues with unspeakable prose. Euphoria has officially dethroned it.
But Euphoria isn’t about dialogue or realism, you say: it’s about style. Well, Euphoria’s style is basically, attractive people wearing ridiculous costumes (calling it wardrobe is nowhere near accurate), having sex in dimly lit rooms (never bedrooms of course) and penises everywhere. I’d say it’s a step away from kiddie porn but I’ve watched Cinemax and Showtime from the 1990s: they had the dignity to at least go through the motions of a storyline between sex scenes. The fact that is what this show is all about is actually more troubling. I can think of the target audience for Skinemax; who the hell would watch Euphoria? And based on the ratings, the answer seems to be: a lot of people. The follow up: why the hell would anyone watch Euphoria?
Here is an answer I have. On the second half of The Good Wife, as a subtle commentary television in the background played a series called Darkness at Noon, a series that satirizes shows like True Detective, Breaking Bad and all the White Male Antihero series that were at the time taking Emmy nominations out of the hands of The Good Wife.
Viewed in that sense, Euphoria could be considered something called ‘Prestige HBO Drama.” It has the drug addiction battles of Euphoria, the sex and nudity of Game of Thrones and True Blood, the dark perspective of True Detective and the architecture and set design of so many Nicole Kidman prestige projects. The difference between this is, of course, no one took the clips in The Good Wife as serious. Everyone, by contrast, takes Euphoria seriously — including, it would appear, the Emmys.
I know how the Emmys operate. I can hope and pray this year’s nomination for Best Drama is an aberration and that when it comes back for its third season, there will be other shows to take its place. Such was the case with Bridgerton which was a sensation last season at the Emmys and this year was virtually ignored by them. And considering it will probably be until at least late 2023 before we get another season, maybe it will be ignored almost completely by the Emmys in favor of superior or at the very least, different shows. But I know the Emmys. They are a clique and once you become a member, you’re there forever. Or at least until the students finish high school. And as we all know from watching the WB that could take quite a few years.