IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

HBO's 'Euphoria' is Zendaya's chance to shine, controversies aside

The series is better than initial buzz might suggest, especially when it stops trying to shock adult viewers.
Image: Euphoria
Zendaya in "Euphoria."Eddy Chen / HBO

HBO’s first foray into teen drama, “Euphoria,” is gambling that sex sells — no matter the age. The show stars actress Zendaya as Rue, an anxiety-prone addict trying to navigate her way to adulthood. Zendaya is excellent in the role even if her performance has, at least initially, been overshadowed by the show’s instant notoriety.

“Euphoria” premiered on June 16 to its fair share of handwringing. HBO is known for its gratuitous nudity, from “Oz” in the 1990s to its “Game of Thrones” sexposition. (Even “Chernobyl” found a way to participate with the infamous “nude miners” scene this past spring.) But the channel has really outdone itself this time, with the first few episodes featuring graphic drug use, a scene that allegedly features 30 penises (I say “allegedly” as I did not personally stop to count), an ugly overdose and a statutory rape featuring a prosthetic erection.

The Parents Television Council, to the surprise of no one, highly disapproves. The series is better than its controversies, though.

The Parents Television Council, to the surprise of no one, highly disapproves. The series is better than its controversies, though, and when it stops trying to shock adult viewers, it shows flashes of being a worthy addition to the HBO pantheon.

Like many American television shows that make waves, “Euphoria” is based on a show from overseas, in this case Israel. Like “Skins” in the UK or the 1995 film “Kids,” it is less aiming for after-school special cred and more focused on really exploring the trauma of today’s teens. On some level, that’s not an accidental choice. The show’s list of producers features Drake, who got his start on a classic of the after-school special genre drama, “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Moreover, while the cast features a bevy of young prestige TV players like Sydney Sweeney (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Sharp Objects”) and nepotistic castings like Maude Apatow (daughter of Hollywood mogul Judd), most of the attention is rightfully trained on Zendaya, who up until last year was still Disney’s most bankable pop princess of the decade.

Now 22, Zendaya has been a Disney Channel staple since 2010, back when the “streaming era” was just a trendy way to rent movies from Netflix instead of getting DVDs through the mail. She’s been a stalwart player for the House of Mouse for a decade, willingly appearing in everything from Disney Channel movies to Disney branded pop records to far-flung Disney properties like the “Project Runway” spinoff “Under The Gunn.” (Lifetime is a Disney property through A&E.)

But unlike the Disney pop princesses who came before her and who tried to transition to adult careers as quickly as possible, Zendaya was still starring in Disney’s “K.C. Undercover” in February of last year. Even her more mature roles were determinedly PG-13, such MJ in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a co-production between Sony and the Disney-owned (and Disney-casted) Marvel Cinematic Universe. (MJ, by the way, is the first African-American love interest in big-screen MCU history.)

In short, playing along with Disney has been very good for Zendaya’s career. But in its own way, “Euphoria” continues Zendaya’s track record of being very calculated. For any other actress, taking a role as a high school drug addict who discusses penises and cervixes as casually as one might discuss a pop quiz would be seen as a declaration that her Disney star days are over. (It’s always a “her,” too.) Here, though, it feels less like rebellion and more like the natural progression of a career, with the nudity and drug use merely a hazard of the job. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like anyone will be worrying how this role might play next to red carpet appearances for her next feature film release, “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

So far, “Euphoria” has drawn more heat that ratings, with last Sunday’s premiere not bringing in major numbers. But after the show aired, the digital numbers showed a gain of nearly 70 percent — a positive sign. Then again, “Euphoria's” teen focus puts it in a strange spot, as it’s exactly the sort of show that the whole family doesn’t watch together. Perhaps, Zendaya’s ability to move effortlessly from teen actress to adult programming and appeal to both demographics is a sign of the changing times. But more likely, this is merely another smart decision by an up-and-coming star who is playing her cards just right.