If our school days are the happiest of our lives, I’m worried for the Euphoria teens. In the season two opener, the kids of East Highland saw a drug dealer being murdered with a hammer by another drug dealer named “Ashtray” (because he ate discarded cigarettes as a child). One girl celebrates New Year’s Eve by hiding under a urine-soaked towel in a bath, and the school’s toxic jock is beaten up so brutally his face has to be stitched back together. As Rue – Euphoria’s enigmatic lynchpin played by Emmy-winner Zendaya – says in the closing seconds: “Damn.”
We had been warned. Before this adolescent journey through drugs, sex and social media resumed, Zendaya told her followers on social media that the second season may be even more “triggering and difficult to watch” than the first. She wasn’t wrong. There’s a torturous drug relapse that ends in a bathtime morphine session, a manipulative love triangle and a battle for an underage sex tape that leads to a game of Russian roulette. Euphoria often feels less high school, more horror film.
That teenage life can be hell is not new territory for television. Skins, the Bristol-set series that recently turned 15, was partial to killing off its characters. Buffy was slaying vampires with stakes while attending class in the late 90s. In recent years, though, teen drama has darkened. Riverdale – based on a comic book series about the happy lives of suburban teenagers – revolves around serial killers and drug rings. In 13 Reasons Why, a teenage girl listed all the reasons why she killed herself.
Perhaps the best example of how times have changed for on-screen teens is last year’s reboot of the soapy noughties classic Gossip Girl. When the super-rich kids of Constance Billard resumed class, there was a new accessory among the Balenciaga trainers and Jacquemus handbags: abject misery. Out was unthinking privilege, in was self-seriousness. The new queen bee Julien is a tortured influencer. Max Wolfe, the reboot’s answer to the original’s antihero Chuck Bass, is stuck in a bleak three-way relationship with two best friends who care more about their sex lives than Max’s actual feelings. They discussed the ethics of property development, brand endorsements and Broadway plays. They did not have fun.
It’s not hard to see why these shows have become so serious. When Gossip Girl first hit our screens in 2007, it was glitzy fluff. Fifteen years later, times are darker to the extent that it would be almost impossible not to engage with more serious issues. Especially as, in the intervening years, the technology that made the original concept so fun – an all-knowing, gossip-starved blogger! – has become something uglier. The teens are snapped in real time cheating on each other; they’re constantly worrying about how they are perceived online. The Gossip Girl reboot isn’t always an elegant reflection of modern teen anxieties, but it is a symptom of them.
It’s also worth remembering that, extreme as the plotlines of shows like Euphoria may be at times, reality underlies them. In the US, the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2017. Showrunner Sam Levinson struggled with drug addiction as a teenager, eventually checking himself into rehab at 19. Though Rue’s addiction is increasingly difficult to watch, it is addressed with patience, rather than solved neatly by a season finale.
Plotlines based around social media-induced anxiety are also simply depicting the reality of life for many teens. One of the best scenes in Euphoria’s second season is when body-conscious teen Kat, who had apparently overcome her self-confidence issues last season, breaks down again. In her messy bedroom, she is assaulted by imaginary body positivity influencers. “Kat, you’re one of the bravest, most beautiful human beings I’ve ever seen,” a perfectly preened, bikini-clad blonde tells her. Another screams at her to embrace her “inner fucking warrior”. It is a delicious take-down of anodyne influencer culture: the notion that people will simply feel beautiful by being told they are beautiful by beautiful people. When one model assures her that she has mental issues too, Kat laughs in her face: “I wish my mental problems made me look like you.”
Teen dramas have always thrived on controversy. The original Gossip Girl ran an ad campaign proclaiming the show “every parent’s nightmare”. This season, Euphoria has doubled its viewing figures and secured a third run, no doubt aided by the trending topics and memes it inspires with every shocking turn. Every generation, it seems, likes to think of itself as the most scandalous. But in the current landscape of regularly scheduled anxiety and overdoses, it’s hard to imagine just how much bleaker these shows can get. While there will always be fresh miseries at hand – a pandemic is right there for the taking – it might benefit some of them to take a lighter approach. Being a teenager can be a world-consuming cycle of hell but, with a little perspective, it can also be pretty funny.