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Is Euphoria Really A Bad Influence? The Reason We Love Watching Drama Unfold
Why have shows like Euphoria come to generate such discourse about teenage behaviour?
02 February, 2022

We’re in the midst of the second season of Euphoria, the critically acclaimed HBO show about a group of teenagers living in suburban California. Much of the controversy the show has garnered has subsided behind praise of the gorgeous cinematography, well-fleshed out characters and impeccable costume design. While none of this can be denied, questioning the ethics of this show is more complex than it appears on the surface. 

The protagonist and self-referring ‘unreliable narrator’ of the show is Rue, a seventeen year old drug addict (portrayed by Zendaya). Rue is a stressful character to follow; she continually puts herself in bad situations and struggles to treat her loved ones as they deserve. It’s a cutting, realistic performance of addiction. Despite this, Rue is just one of a host of complicated characters within the Euphoria universe. 

Many of the characters on Euphoria subvert what we might expect, all while recounting common coming of age problems. Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), the closest Euphoria comes to an antagonist, is a manipulator, continually using other characters as pawns in his own games. He is almost universally acknowledged as deplorable, but his actions are overshadowed by his coming to grips with his father’s disturbing double life. His on-and-off girlfriend Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) is often a victim to his cruelty, and in any other show she likely would have been written as a vapid, two-dimensional mean girl, but there is a depth and heart to Maddy that makes her loveable, not to mention her weekly delivery of hilarious one-liners and stunning outfits. 

Understandably, these characters are not great influences. The portrayals of gritty subject matter, from drug deals to sordid sexual practices are broadcast full-frontally. There is no avoiding these topics in Euphoria. A running joke online mocks the lack of school work done at ‘Euphoria High’, none of our characters carry backpacks or discuss their homework, the only character with any academic curiosity is Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow), the antithesis of her glamorous, emotionally vulnerable sister Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The second season has teased Lexi’s romance with heart-of-gold drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) – even normal characters can’t seem to escape this seedy underbelly of suburban life. 

In Euphoria, coming of age issues are portrayed with a glittery, colourful facade. Does this make the show a glamorisation of terrible behaviour? Just because the audience views events through a beautiful kaleidoscopic lens, does not mean we view the characters through rose tinted glasses. 

Some would argue that Euphoria is encouraging teenagers to do drugs, drink drive, exploit themselves sexually and so much more. When a show presents itself so beautifully, so intensely, it can be easy to see how we might see this as a glorification of what wouldn’t be otherwise endorsed. To this there are several rebuttals: we must ask ourselves who the intended audience of Euphoria actually is, as well as questioning why shows like this exist. 

Euphoria is not the kind of show that minors should be watching; you can’t get through an episode without graphic nudity or hard drugs. That isn’t to say it will necessarily stop minors from watching it, young people often aren’t supervised in their viewing habits. Regardless, rationality would dictate that a show so blatant in its subject matter is not for children, nor teenagers, despite the fact that the show is primarily based around the lives of teenagers. 

In the UK, a similar phenomenon was experienced with the release of Skins. Skins was probably the first television show to depict a boundless teenage romp around sex and drugs; a whole generation grew up expecting to experience riotous behaviour because of Skins – many did. The troubled, complex Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario) became the poster-girl for teenage rebellion during Skins’ TV run, and ultimately, her romanticisation of depression, drinking and, at one point, committing grievous bodily harm while on a cocktail of drugs, probably lead to some poor choices for the teenagers of Britain. 

The key difference between Skins and Euphoria is, arguably (beyond the implicit acknowledgement of wrongdoing in Euphoria, and the ultimately dire consequences for characters) the fact that Rue, as the unreliable narrator of the story, frequently points out her negligence, often in the form of fourth-wall-breaking monologues. The viewer is deeply aware that the decisions being made on screen are misguided, which forms a basis for much of the online discourse about characters. 

‘People just wanna find hope… if not in reality, then in television. Unfortunately, I’m not it.’

Rue, Euphoria (2.3)

There’s a reason we like watching shows like Euphoria. Since the early days of Greek tragedy, humans have felt an insatiable need to explore the dramas and pitfalls of human existence through the means of fiction. Aristotle blamed this on the sensation of catharsis, the relief we feel watching a story of terrible events come full circle. Much the same in the twenty first century, there is an itch to be scratched by watching deplorable people do deplorable things on TV, or as one Youtube commenter described Euphoria, ‘This show makes me feel sympathetic for people I shouldn’t.’

Blaming Euphoria for teen degeneracy is in the same vein as blaming violent video games for real-world violence. Very few Call of Duty players will translate a simulated massacre into an actual one. Discretion lies in the viewer, or whoever is responsible for the viewer. Entertainment suspends reality in a way which can benefit us greatly, but failing to recognise fiction is where some fall short. The actions depicted in Euphoria are nothing new, but we should consider who has access to graphic, troubling content, and what purpose we find in viewing it. 

2nd year Classical Studies student at King's.

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