Euphoria is hardly the first TV show to depict substance use. The Wire, Breaking Bad, Ozark, Dopesick, and others all largely illustrate the overtly stigmatized yet simultaneously overlooked illegal drug trade currently plaguing the nation. What perhaps makes Euphoria different, and what D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) advocates are criticizing, is the setting and age group of which the series is based: teenagers in a high school. The show is many narratives in one; it follows a group of teens as they navigate love, loss, and deep personal traumas, but unlike most stories of similar caliber, Euphoria does not shy away from the darker sides of life: the gritty hard stuff like addiction, abuse, and the life-threatening nature of the drug trade.
Despite the intentional viewer discretion notices and messages warning of explicit content meant for mature audiences (and a screen sharing helplines open 24 hours for those struggling as well as an entire resource page on the network’s website), D.A.R.E. believes Euphoria “chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence, and other widespread behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.” This statement, released earlier this year around the launch of the second season of the show, certainly poses a few questions: is Euphoria’s content truly “glorifying” these widespread behaviors or is it accurately depicting a frightening world that teens of today’s generation face daily? One that is rife with reckless sex, varying forms of abuse, and the very real, very frightening underground drug market. Where is the line between promotion and exaggerated reality, especially for the sake of informing viewers of otherwise taboo topics?
Is Familiarity Dangerous?
There was a similar discussion when Breaking Bad received critical acclaim and widespread viewership; many felt that the series glorified Methamphetamine use, even when the show realistically portrayed the horror and self-destruction of those who fall victim to the allure of desperately seeking the next high. Prosecutor Blake Ewing argues that “while Breaking Bad may not glorify Meth in the sense of making it attractive to the average viewer, it does normalize the idea of Meth for a broad segment of society that might otherwise have no knowledge of that dark and dangerous world.” Largely, Ewing believes that what he calls a “false sense of familiarity” – a result of formed connections with the characters in the show – is dangerous because it makes the very existence and prevalence of an entire underlying culture a little less foreign and unknown.
Almost an antithesis to the everlasting adage, “knowledge is power,” the notion that familiarity is “inherently dangerous” (quoted from Ewing’s piece written for Time) is interesting. A technology-dependent society, more and more frequently we learn from the media; screens dictate and depict our inside emotions or that which we are curious to learn more about, often acting as a mirror or a window depending on how we’re feeling when we pick up the remote. Young people are especially perceptible to media and influence and the way different outlets portray and represent behaviors and subcultures such as partying and drug use. For instance, a recent study investigated adolescents’ exposure to various substances’ advertisements and found that there is a correlation between exposure to alcohol content (particularly pointed marketing) and early alcohol consumption.
However, as is the case with Euphoria, when the content is blunt, heavy, and raw, rather than glamorous or sophisticated, are teens more or less likely to relate to the underlying themes? Do they engage in the exhibited dangerous and reckless behaviors simply because they have a greater bandwidth of understanding or simply thank their lucky stars that the characters are behind a screen rather than at their school? It’s hard to know for sure; the show is not even 3 years old.
Is Euphoria A Fair Representation Of High School Today?
Unlike other teen-focused party culture dramas, Euphoria has managed to capitalize on the true and utter desolation of topics like severe teenage drug addiction and intense (and varied) sexual trauma without forfeiting sensitivity. While 13 Reasons Why was criticized for romanticizing suicide and promoting a false narrative that suicide is pointedly blamable, Euphoria is honest, albeit intensely dramatic, but not brooding; in many ways it’s hard to watch. And yet, with multiple storylines and deeply developed characters, the show provides an arguable 360-degree view of the varying conflicts and life choices the characters, and many high schoolers around the world, face.
One local news source reached out to high school students asking if they felt that the show accurately depicted current high school life. Of the responses they received, most students agreed that while certainly exaggerated, thematically, it checks out. “I think our generation has really taken drinking to the next level. Bringing a bottle of vodka and putting it in your locker and being smashed during, like, all periods…that happens,” said one recent graduate from Ontario, Emily Clarizio. Another responder, Alessia Rescigno, age 15, says many teens post content online containing nudity, alcohol, and drugs they’re selling, citing that violence, particularly in cases involving drug deals, is common. “Three of my friends in the last 2 years have died, like, 3 of my friends and…I’m only in grade 10. I don’t think [Euphoria] is exaggerated. I think this is really what happens.”
Euphoria Fans Defend The Show
While D.A.R.E. is upset that HBO, social media, and critics refer to the show as “‘groundbreaking,’” rather than recognizing the potential negative consequences on school age children who today face unparalleled risks and mental health challenges,” their cry is seemingly falling on deaf ears. The HBO network has not responded to offers of collaboration and many fans have met the claim with zealous criticism of their own stating that D.A.R.E. was the reason they became curious about drugs, while Euphoria scares them away entirely. Sam Levinson, creator, writer, and director of the show purposefully designed the narrator/main character, Rue, (played by Zendaya) based around his own experiences with substance abuse and addiction:
I think it’s crucial that film and television portray addiction in an honest way. That we allow for its complexities to play out. That we show the allure of drugs, the relief they can bring, because that is ultimately what makes them so destructive.- Sam Levinson, creator of Euphoria
His main intention was to begin a conversation and create space for these issues that so often separate generations and build walls between parents and teens. By purposefully refusing to shy away from both the enticement and the simultaneous danger and devastation drugs promise, Levinson paints a powerful picture meant to replicate and reflect reality.
What Euphoria stars had to say:
With Euphoria’s second season ending, D.A.R.E has issued a statement advising against the teen drama. They claimed the show to be a “misguided and erroneous” depiction of drug use in teens.
With Zendaya, a lead star in the series stating, “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain.”
“Euphoria” star Angus Cloud says his show doesn’t glorify substance abuse, and insists drugs are not something to take lightly.
Art As Conversation Starter: Could Euphoria Encourage Sobriety?
Ultimately, Euphoria is sparking dialogue; precisely the goal. Addiction, assault, familial trauma, sex and gender expression/experimentation, and overwhelming loss are topics and matters of life that are hard and painful to process and work through. Perhaps consciously (and conscientiously) created art that legitimizes this pain is a solid first step toward widespread awareness and eventual recovery.