The last several days of news cycles have included more than a few articles espousing the levels of graphic sex, nudity, drug abuse, and general debauchery to be found in HBO’s latest teen drama, Euphoria. The full-frontal penis count seems to nearly overshadowed much of the rest of the discourse.

Every few years there’s a television series or movie which sets a new bar of honesty by which the trials and tribulations of the American teenage experience is said to be captured. Euphoria was adapted for American audiences from an Israeli original of the same name by Sam Levinson, and seems to have set out to definitely place it in contention to be part of that conversation.

The tone can be best compared to a Last American Virgin meets HBO’s original series, Oz. The series follows Zendaya as Rue Bennett as both the audience surrogate as well as the show’s self-admitted unreliable voice-over narrator. Rather than going the House of Cards fourth-wall-breaking approach, the episodes rely heavily on Rue’s streams of consciousness and asides to frame the happenings.

Rue is a high school junior, and has just been released from a stint in rehab after nearly dying from a drug overdose. Now she’s come back and trying to fit back into her daily routine. Rather than coming back reformed and fighting to stay clean, she tells us while still in the car on the way home that she has no intent to change her ways.

Her, like her friends around her and town newcomer, Jules (played by Hunter Schafer), they are so over-stimulated by their surroundings in an ever-connected world, that they have to keep pushing the boundaries to have any chance to feel anything.

There’s nothing glamorized in its approach to any of the various subjects. At the same time, neither does it expressly vilify them either. There’s various characters that are genuinely good people, and they stand out amongst their surroundings like the only spots of color in an otherwise black and white world. Rue’s dealer keeps pushing her to steer clear of drugs, while she smiles and explains why she needs that momentary sensation of nothing.

The story doesn’t moralize, but rather falls over itself trying to explain that everyone has a reason for what they do. It might not be a good or right one, but there’s nobody present that is a simple cardboard cutout. It’s a strong kickoff, and Zendaya continues to impress with her performance chops. If anything remains to be see is that with as dark as it’s started out, how far can they turn the dials before they go from the dark to the sardonic.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Euphoria airs Sunday evenings on HBO.

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