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ATX Television Festival 2019: “Euphoria” Review

“Euphoria” is a new HBO show premiering on Sunday, June 16. It comes from creator Sam Levinson (“The Wizard of Lies,” “Assassination Nation”), who says the inspiration for the show came from his own experiences.

Levinson is now 14 years clean, but in the past has dealt with drug addiction, depression and anxiety. He got choked up talking about his experiences during the Q&A that followed the screening. He said of his wife, who has helped him through everything, “Keep your heart open, and there are people that can change your life.”

Zendaya plays the show’s main character, Rue, who also deals with the issues of drug addiction and mental illness. And while those problems have been spotlighted in television shows before, “Euphoria” is a little different. For one, it takes place in the present day and shows a modern teen experience. But just because the characters are young doesn’t mean that the series won’t dive into dark subject matter.

In the first episode, “Euphoria” introduces us to Rue, who was born just a few days post 9/11. She discovers she has a range of mental illnesses when she’s a child, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety. And, as a teen, she ends up in rehab for her drug addiction.

And then there are the family issues. Rue’s dad has passed away. She has a strained relationship with her mom (Nika King), and her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) seems to look up to her and be scared for her at the same time. While King and Reid don’t have too much to do in the pilot, their performances are moving enough to make you look forward to when they are featured more. And of course, Zendaya is a tour-de-force as an unruly, troubled teen.

There are plenty of other characters that we meet in the episode, though it seems that two will be the biggest players: Jules (Hunter Schafer) and Kat (Barbie Ferreira).

Schafer and her character are both transgender women, which is revealed in the show but never spoken about. She was previously a model, with “Euphoria” being her first acting role, and you would never know it. She puts so much heart and feeling into the character of Jules, who is struggling with plenty of her own demons.

During the Q&A, Schafer said that Jules’s pattern of behavior is “like an addiction” as well. She also loves that the character is “tough as hell” and willing to prove it.

Ferreira is also relatively new to acting, and another gifted young star. As Kat, her main struggles seem to be related to her weight and her love life. She’s heavier than her friends, and she’s worried about how others perceive her, though she hardly ever lets on. She is also a virgin at the beginning of the series, and you get the feeling that it’s uncommon among these teens.

The actress spoke to those issues in the Q&A: “Kat’s insecurities keep her from feeling like a teenage girl, like her friends do.” Ferreira also says that she feels Kat wants to feel “in power and visible,” which are feelings she shared at the age of 16.

Hunter Schafer and Barbie Ferreira | Photo credit: Jack Plunkett/ATX Television Festival

“Euphoria” does not shy away from nudity or sex (and porn’s influence on the latter), but according to the cast, the set still feels like a safe environment. HBO uses an intimacy coordinator who helps the actors through scenes that might otherwise be tough or uncomfortable.

Eric Dane (“Grey’s Anatomy”) plays a small part in the pilot — but likely a bigger part in the series. He spoke to the safety in shooting sex scenes after the screening: “It might look fun sometimes, but it’s exposing and raw and hard when there are a lot of eyes on you.”

The pilot was written by Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin, Sam Levinson and
Tmira Yardeni, and it was directed by Augustine Frizzell. This team has created a show that has its own feel to it in a way you don’t often see with hour-long dramas. There is comedy to the writing, however dark, and a realistic sensibility in the way these teenagers talk to each other. There are also a number of storytelling methods used, like freeze frames, flashbacks and parallel points of view. There isn’t a single boring moment in this show.

L-R: Moderator Sonia Saraiya, show creator Sam Levinson, actors Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Barbie Ferreira and Eric Dane | Photo credit: Jackie Ruth

If you’re interested in a wild ride, get ready for the one that “Euphoria” wants to take you on. It feels like new territory not only for Zendaya and so many of the near-unknown actors in the series, but for HBO as a network. Just be ready for dark themes and bright lights.

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Featured image credit: Jack Plunkett/ATX Television Festival

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