Euphoria: Is this how Gen Z want to explore their world through storytelling?
Hands up if you’ve watched Sky Atlantic’s Euphoria yet? I’ve always had a fascination with YA TV shows, raising myself on Heartbreak High, My So-Called Life, Party of Five and more recently the Netflix hits 13 Reasons, Sex Education and Riverdale. I was ready for whatever Euphoria was going to serve up for my YA taste buds.
It’s possibly the first time a YA show has stopped me in my tracks in such a dramatic way (and by that, I paused on scrolling ASOS and everything). In the first episode alone, we see drug taking and drinking teens, revenge porn, dominant sexual partners, graphic sex scenes and rehab: this is no slow burn narrative. Right from the off, viewers are thrust into a dynamic, complex and dark set of issues; perhaps a tactic to feed instant gratification needs and avoid Gen Z’s uber-fast filter. And the execution makes it even harder to switch off. The aesthetic combined with the themes delivers something truly unique: a stunning, Insta-worthy creative feast for the eyes that makes it hard to look away.
Gen Z are increasingly building an image in the media and within our industry as we talk about them as agents of social change, activists who are politically engaged, and a force for making the world a better place. And whilst there is certainly a proportion of them who fit this archetype, it’s not the whole Gen Z story: there are a lot of issues and darker sides of their generation that don’t make it into their headline DNA. Euphoria felt like an unashamed deep dive into that darker side; perhaps the first time we’ve seen the lives of this generation depicted so bluntly.
Zendaya’s character Rue’s opening monologue communicates this darker Gen Z origins story: “I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own private, primordial pool. Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed over and over by the cruel cervix of my mother, Leslie. I put up a good fight, but I lost, for the first time, but not the last. I was born three days after 9/11.” It’s dialogue like this, overlaid with shots of Rue’s traumatic birth, school shooting drills, and 00s politics, that squares up honestly to who Gen Z are and where they have come from.
We have of course seen mental health and suicide explored through 13 Reasons Why and sexual relationships opened up in Sex Education, but Euphoria skips the emotive softness and gentler style that these shows leverage to take the viewer on a journey towards understanding the issues. Even Skins, which a decade ago tackled similar issues for a Millennial audience, did so with a sense of charm and humour. By contrast, Euphoria is a slap in the face cocktail of every hard-hitting issue a 21st century teenager could hope not to experience.
The all important question that I was dying to know as I watched, open-mouthed as the story unfolded – what do Gen Z themselves think of the show? Is this bare-all approach what they are looking for? Is it time for the more dominant ‘gentle’ approach to Gen Z teen issues within content to step down and make way for this raw and unfiltered style?
When Vice asked teens how realistic Euphoria really is, the response was mixed. Some felt themes such as drug dependence, peer pressure and mental health were a very real part of their lives, reflective of things that go on in their schools, and even to people they know. But for many, whilst these things do go on – it isn’t what they want to see reflected back at them in such an unfiltered, brutal way. With teens predominantly using content to escape a complex world, relax, and connect with passions and with friends, it was perhaps all just ‘a bit much’ for those moments of downtime – when actually, what they want is to escape from, rather than create or exacerbate, stress and anxiety.
We currently live in a time of vocal opinions, so a show which polarises its target audience perhaps even adds to its relevancy, giving Gen Z something to debate over. Having an opinion and articulating a point of view has become a cornerstone of Gen Z’s DNA and Euphoria unquestionably overdelivers here by providing a tonne of content to chew over socially.