Why Sam Levinson’s The Idol became so toxic

The first episode of Sam Levinson’s blistering howl of a teen show Euphoria starts with the lead character – an addict named Rue – announcing she was born three days after 9/11 then hurls the viewer into what this generation has grown up with: terror, drugs, d— pics and nude selfies, social media, pornography, prescription opioids, gender fluidity and the lascivious attention of the older generation.

To say it caused upset when it appeared on HBO back in 2019 is putting it mildly. Even thirtysomething journalists, barely 10 years older than the characters, found the show terrifying and incomprehensible (“HBO’s Euphoria Made Me Feel Old and Scared,” read one headline). Parents thought the devil was crawling through the screen. 

It’s not as if HBO enjoyed a reputation for family friendly dramas at the time. But The Wire and The Sopranos – even Game of Thrones – elicited nothing like this level of shock and awe. And, of course, devotion among its target audience. For a generation born into nihilism, Sam Levinson’s vision of life proved so compelling it’s become HBO’s second most popular show in 20 years – after Game of Thrones.

Adapted from an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria follows a young and jaded Rue Bennett, played by 26-year-old Zendaya Coleman, as she emerges from rehab and returns to high school. She meets and falls for Jules Vaughn, played by model Hunter Schafer, and does her moderately successful best to stay sober. The series expands to the students at East Highland High School in California grappling with sex, substances and social media in a show that blends the hyperreal drugs madness of Trainspotting with the tormented angst of Beverly Hills 90210. 

The first episode of Euphoria’s second season, for instance, contains three penis shots, a drug-dealing grandmother, a girl shooting up in a car, a 12-year-old with face tattoos, sex in a bathroom, a near-overdose on opioids averted by snorting Adderall and a baby eating cigarette butts. It was watched by 19 million people in the US alone. 

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