In many ways, HBO's Euphoria perfectly captures the anxieties, the concerns and the general discomfort of being a Gen Z teenager. Getting through high school one lockdown at a time, navigating sex in an age when kids have more access to porn than ever before, wondering if the new boy in school is a mass shooter or incel—the first two episodes beautifully capture the stress and foreboding quality of it all. Unfortunately, Euphoria also frequently and willfully goes out of its way to misrepresent teen life in 2019, adding a self-consciously messy layer intended to shock, rather than reflect reality.
Euphoria is a show that follows the example of prior generations' more extreme movies about adolescence—think Less Than Zero, Kids, Thirteen—without factoring in how much better behaved kids are now in comparison to Generation X, Baby Boomers and even Millennials. Teens now have sex less, do drugs less, try alcohol later and go out less than any other teens in modern history—yet the 17-year-olds in Euphoria are presented as doing almost nothing else.
It's not just that teens are less likely to abuse drugs now, it's that when they do, the drugs are different from those of prior generations. The way the show handles new fears around fentanyl in the second episode is a stroke of brilliance, but watching Rue (Zendaya) doing lines of coke at every opportunity feels out of place and dated. If the show had stuck to her merely stealing prescription pills out of bathroom cabinets or oxycontin from her sick father, it would have made more sense both in terms of the drugs Americans are most likely to abuse today and the financial constraints of being a jobless teen from a single-parent household.
Even factoring that in, the rates of high school seniors abusing pain medication has been steadily dropping since 2004, when it peaked at 9.4 percent. In 2018, it was just 3.4 percent, and CDC research shows a consistent drop in drug use across the board.
Euphoria's creator, Sam Levinson, has talked openly about the fact that Rue's character is based on his own experience as a drug-dependent teen. "I spent the majority of my teenage years in hospitals, rehabs and halfway houses,” Levinson said at the show's Hollywood premiere. “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.” It seems that by putting so much of himself into the character of Rue, Levinson—who had his own drug problem in the late '90s and early-aughts—has accidentally dated her.