Respectfully, I called it.
When Netflix canceled the sweet, innocent coming-of-age series Everything Sucks!, I looked at the known projects actress Sydney Sweeney was attached to at the time (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, HBO’s Sharp Objects, and a little movie set in 1969 Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino) and said Netflix would regret letting her get away.
Netflix famously doesn’t release its viewership numbers. But if you listen closely you can probably hear the sobbing from outside their offices. And she’s not even the named star of HBO’s Euphoria. Zendaya, who made the great Spider-Man: Far from Home even better with her wit, is our Virgil in this little walk through the hell of the teenage years.
She plays the improbably named Rue, a teenager who may be bipolar but is definitely a drug addict from a young age, and there are all sorts of fan theories that Rue is dead and narrated from beyond the grave.
My advice? Don’t overthink it. Watch it as a teenager might live it — experience it in the moment. Yes, there will be a lot more sightings of the nude male body than you’d expect from a “teen drama,” but it barely makes a dent in the nudity disparity of show business. But if flashing lights are an issue for you, watch something else. (Seriously.)
When we meet Rue, she’s fresh out of rehab after an overdose — her little sister found her, and yes, that has repercussions — and she has no intentions of remaining sober. Then she meets Jules, a trans girl played by newcomer and real-life trans model Hunter Schafer, and the sort of instant chemistry only found in teenage years sparks into a peculiar, tentative, frightened and frightening, and magical romance.
Rue’s issues, we’ve already discussed. Jules’ issues involve hooking up with older men who swear they’re not gay but invariably find her on gay dating apps. And one of them (played by Eric Dane) turns out to be the father of one of Jules’ new classmates — and one of the wealthiest men in town. Oh, and the son is a case study in whatever privileged young white male sociopath just got away with a horrible crime, probably sexual in nature, whenever you read this. Those are just a third of regular cast.
Some have stories we’ve not begun to explore, so I’m glad HBO has ordered a second season. Maude Apatow (daughter of filmmaker Judd Apatow and his wife, actress Leslie Mann) plays the younger sister of Sydney Sweeney’s character, maybe the one level-headed character on the entire show, and all we know about her is that she seems to be in love with Rue.
There are two drug dealers — a dropout in his early 20s and his well-read but trashtalking little brother who may be pre-adolescent — who could probably carry a series of their own. Barbie Ferriera’s work as Kat — a budding webcam girl — is breaking the new boundaries in the portrayal of plus-sized women and their sexuality that Lena Dunham likes to think she did, minus the insufferable factor.
Where are the parents? Well, Rue and her sister are children of a single mother who works hard. Cass and Lexi (Sweeney and Apatow) are daughters of a single mother who drinks hard. Eric Dane’s menacing statutory rapist character is waking up to the fact that his son is a true monster in the making. And the drug-dealing brothers are caring for a grandmother at home who seems to be virtually comatose.
The show’s dark. But sometimes it’s wickedly funny: There’s a fourth-wall breaking sequence in the second episode in which Rue discusses the rules for nude male selfies, let’s say, that is shocking and raw and hilarious, and probably got her key card to the Disney Studios deactivated.
A more recent episode found her in a manic state, obsessing over her relationship with Jules and coming to all sorts of plausible but wrong conclusions, donning an outfit like a 1930s police detective (suspenders, dress shirt, fedora, cigarette) and towing Lexi around as her junior partner. That bit of costume play could have been right at home on the sort of tween fare where Zendaya got her start, though it would have been a lollipop or Twizzler as the prop instead of a cigarette.
The 3:45 a.m. phone call to the long-suffering friend would have been the capstone in either situation, along with the friend finally hanging up. But then there’s the moment where medicine bottles in a comatose woman’s bedroom become animated and start telling Rue to open them up and take all the pills. And the finale looks like it’s going to have a true-to-life discussion about an unwanted pregnancy (I’m not saying whose, but it isn’t Rue’s) that may not end with the happy “I’m keeping the baby” or “I’m giving it up for adoption” moment you’d find if Nick or Disney ever went there.
The actors’ and actresses’ work with creator Sam Levinson (son of director Barry Levinson) has created a searingly intimate look at the teenage years with characters who are as close to the performers as their skin. At least a couple of the performers say in post-show segments that their characters are based on their own experiences (Ferriera, Schafer). So while there is an element of “freak out the parents” here — a bit of the “cautionary tale” baked into the recipe — there’s also some hope even at the bleakest moments.
Because some of the people telling these stories have survived as bad or worse. That’s something, at least.
Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.