Scott Turner Schofield on HBO's "Euphoria"
Five Reasons to Watch Zendaya's New Series 'Euphoria'
By Susan Hornik, Shondaland
The HBO show offers an unflinching look at teen drug use — and it makes for necessary TV viewing.
In case you missed it, HBO's gut-wrenching new drama series, Euphoria, premiered on June 16 to a Twitter firestorm. Yes, Eric Dane, McSteamy himself, went full-frontal in the first episode, but the internet chatter went far deeper than his prosthetic manhood. Exploring a group of teens as they navigate their way through heavy drug use, meaningless sex, past childhood trauma, and social media, the subject matter of the Zendaya-starring series is both graphic and heartbreaking — precisely why so many people had so much to say about the hard-hitting narrative.
Executive produced by Drake and loosely based on an Israeli teen series, much of what is onscreen was created by Sam Levinson's personal experiences struggling with addiction. "I spent the majority of my teenage years in hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses," Levinson told the audience at the premiere screening in Hollywood. "Sometime around the age of 16, I resigned myself to the idea that eventually drugs would kill me, and there was no reason to fight it. I would let it take me over, and I had made peace with that."
Levinson checked into rehab and came across a quote in a book that changed his life. " 'In the end, we are nothing more than an amalgamation of our actions, and that's ultimately what defines us,' ...that really spooked me in a sense that, if I were to die today, who would I be? I'm a thief. I'm an addict. I've been shitty to almost every person in my life that I love," Levinson says. "There was this voice that was clear as day that said, 'stop fucking doing drugs.' I've been clean for 14 years."
And with that time came, clearly, a lot of perspective, which Levinson artfully bakes into every episode, even moment of Euphoria, a modern series for a modern audience that sheds a harsh light on modern problems. As troublesome as it can be to watch it all play out on screen, the series seems set to become essential viewing, for teens, those raising them, and everyone in between. Here are five reasons to start watching Euphoria, right now.
Of Zendaya — who, on set, is affectionately known as "Z" — Levinson told Shondaland.com, "she is one of the most empathic people I've met. From day one, I've been incredibly open with her about my life, my struggles with addiction, anxiety, and depression, and I find that the more I talk to her about what I went through, the more emotional parallels we're able to find – even though her experience is very different – and ultimately, everything bleeds together [in her character]. So even though Rue is based on my own experiences, she's made it her own. She's found the honesty, and every day on set, I feel so grateful. She's Rue."
As far as the transition from Disney star to a drug-addled teenager — a far cry from what audiences are used to seeing from the young actress — the veteran writer/creator describes her talent as having "no ceiling."
"She's capable of absolutely anything," Levinson says, "which, in turn, makes the work not just a joy, but also inspiring as a writer and a director. Since it's a show about how hard it is to articulate your feelings when you're young, there's often very little dialogue, so everything hinges on her face. What is consistently amazing is her ability to tap into the heart, the humor, and the madness of Rue through the smallest gestures. It's frightening how she can break your heart with just a glance."
It's Real — Like, Really Real
At the Euphoria premiere, Reggie Watts, bandleader for The Late Late Show With James Corden was "really blown away" after watching the first episode. "I don't think I have ever seen anything represent the current generation in this way at all. It's usually generalized with no explanation of anything important, while this series has depth. That's incredibly exciting to see; there is this darkness, but also there's an awareness and a consciousness from the main characters. That's so intriguing; I am excited for the journey. I want to see what happens to these people, what the response to living life in such an overstimulated way. It's so different from my Generation X upbringing."
Barbie Ferreira plays Kat, a high school student dealing with body issues. At the screening, Ferreira talked about how young women may feel about the controversial themes of the series, which include the loss of virginity. "Sex is obviously something that teenagers have been doing for so long; it's not a new thought that they are having it," she says. "But portraying it in ways that have not been seen is actually pretty relatable and kinda speaks to people. I think it's important to see that onscreen." Indeed, Ferreira — who has previously modeled for H&M, Adidas, and Diesel and is an advocate for body positivity — find parallels in her own young life. "I grew up with a lot of the anxiety that teenagers go through, especially in the social media age. Anything that realistically portrays what you are going through kinda makes you feel like you are not alone. That always adds another layer," she says.
Angus Cloud, in his first acting role, plays the thoughtful drug dealer and friend of Rue's, "I think teens are going to watch this and absolutely learn what not to do." Eric Dane, who has had his own struggles with addiction in the past and plays Cal Jacobs, a married man with a secret, agrees: "I don't think anyone will look at this and think drugs are cool. This is not a series that glamorizes drug abuse in any way, shape, or form. It's done so truthfully that it shows a lot of this stuff for what it really is," Dane says. "There is an honesty and beauty to the eventual redemption."
The Diverse Cast
Keeping viewers riveted to the screen is the vibrant ensemble cast, which, in addition to Zendaya, Ferreira, Cloud, and Dane, features Storm Reid, (who recently starred in When They See Us); trans model turned actress, Hunter Schafer, who plays Jules, Rue's best friend; Algee Smith (The Hate U Give), a football star adjusting to college life; and other up-and-comers like Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Sydney Sweeney, and Nika King.
"The diversity in Euphoria is a very vital part of the show in my eyes," Smith tells Shondaland.com. "We have so many different characters from different walks of life that a lot of people will relate to. From the life of teenage Rue to the very adult life of Cal, every character has their own secrets that they live with." The multicultural cast adds more dimension to the story lines. "We have no boundaries. We can appeal to a range of individuals and make the audience feel comfortable when they notice something specifically from their own culture being used. Euphoria is a must-watch because it's truth and reality that we live in today. It's important for us to know the state of many people dealing with these same issues. If we don't talk about it, we can't help fix it."
The Treatment of Trans Characters
To ensure Jules was real and authentic, and that Schafer — a trans actor joining the ranks of trans actors before her who are changing their community's portrayal on TV — felt supported on set, HBO hired Scott Turner Schofield, a transgender sensitivity trainer and actor/writer/producer.
"I was the first openly transgender actor in daytime television (on CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful)," Schofield says, "so I have a well-rounded experience of breaking ground in this way." And that experience came in handy when bringing truth and authenticity to Jules' character. "I did a sensitivity read on the scripts, trained the crew on how to be respectful of the trans and non-binary talent on set, and was a resource to Hunter as she shot some of her scenes," Schofield says. "Many of her scenes required an emotional vulnerability that would be challenging for any young actor, let alone one that is transgender." For anyone who has seen Jules's scene with Cal in the first episode, you know what he's talking about.
It's a Wake-Up Call
While there are plenty of people on social media accusing the show of being too extreme, drug addiction amongst teens and young people is still a reality. "The brutality of drug use in teen populations is as vicious as it is ubiquitous," says Daniel Ahearn, a meditation counselor who works in rehabs and trauma clinics. "Pop cultures' blatant commodification of weed culture and pill popping hasn't helped the situation in the slightest. Younger and younger people, children actually, are caught in the drug web, and the results are horrific."
Beyond the catastrophic numbers of deaths in the teen population, the complexity of the situation accelerates when depression, self-harm, and suicide are interwoven with drug use, Ahearn says. "It's complicated," he adds, "children are in pain, and they are medicating. We are a culture that encourages treating the symptom. 'I'm sad.' Take a pill. 'I can't focus.' Take a pill. 'I'm bored.' Get high. 'I'm sad...' and so on."
Nevertheless, Ahearn hopes adopting strategies to encourage exploring healthy self and co-regulation skills, like meditation, will help. "I watch it work with populations I sit with daily. I don't think we are doomed. I do think we need to wake up and deal with it. The hip nihilism of drug use will otherwise be our undoing."