250 and counting


There is a lot of excess in Euphoria. At times it is the best of shows, at times it is the worst, at times it is both simultaneously. It demands our attention ... the only way to avoid it is to refuse to watch it in the first place. Metacritic collates the reviews for Euphoria and assigns a rating of 67 out of 100, meaning "generally favorable reviews". But of the 25 critics it includes, only 14 give positive reviews. 10 are mixed, and one is negative. Tim Goodman wrote that Euphoria featured "An early career-defining performance from Zendaya, who is an absolute revelation here; a similarly fantastic breakout performance from trans actress and model Hunter Schafer in her first major role; and strong work from [Sam] Levinson, who created, wrote and directed (five of the eight episodes), getting the vehicle that emphatically announces his arrival." Jen Chaney wrote, "What I can’t ascertain after watching these initial four episodes is whether all the nudity, drug use, and sometimes violent sexual activity is justifiable.... I also find while watching Euphoria that I can’t stop myself or look away." And Willa Paskin said "Euphoria frames itself as showing us the real experiences no one else has the heart to show, the unvarnished, gnarly truth, and there’s something sticky and queasily self-punishing about this vision of a world where everyone is empty and miserable and they’re only 16." All those critics were writing about the same show, and none of them are very far off target, if they are at all. Euphoria is a mess. I couldn't get enough of it.

At first, I assumed that this was a career-changing performance by Zendaya, and it's true, she is playing against her image here. But in truth, I had barely heard of Zendaya before the series began, and she is so great as Rue that I thought she was some out-of-nowhere acting savant (she is, of course, already a big star, a 22-year-old woman out of Oakland who has starred in a Disney series, appeared on Dancing with the Stars, played Spider-Man's girlfriend in the most recent movie version of that story, and sung on charting singles and albums). So I didn't know her, but nonetheless, she is great.

The out-of-nowhere star I thought Zendaya was does exist on Euphoria, though. Her name is Hunter Schafer, making her acting debut. Schafer, who is herself a transgender woman, plays Jules, a transgender teenager. The relationship between Rue and Jules is delightful and intense and wonderful ... and also toxic, as befits this damn show. The shippers are out in force for "Rules", and it's true, virtually every scene between the two is heartbreaking. They also break our hearts in solo scenes, as when Zendaya/Rue goes online to ask, "Can a bipolar person tell that they’re bipolar?"

There is a lot of fine acting on Euphoria ... I don't know who to start with after the two stars. But one person in particular deserves special mention, Angus Cloud, who like Zendaya is from Oakland and like Schafer had no prior acting credits. Cloud's drug dealer, Fez, develops into the cliched dealer with a heart of gold, but Cloud makes it seem real, and he has become a fan favorite.

I said the show is a mess, and it is. It is far from perfect. The entire plot line surrounding Nate, a star quarterback who is a standard villain, is dumb. But just when you think you're going to give up, Euphoria pulls you back in.