In the opening scenes of HBO’s Euphoria, Zendaya’s character Rue narrates the trials of her childhood with a mix of self-pity and boredom. “I’m just fucking exhausted,” she deadpans. Scenes from her birth are interspersed with footage from 9/11, signaling that the show will be preoccupied with struggles specific to the generation of kids born after the tragedy—begrudged, misunderstood Gen Z. The sequence culminates with a montage of now-teenage Rue stealing prescription drugs from her mother’s medicine cabinet. “At some point you make a choice about who you are and what you want,” she says. Rue wants drugs, and Zendaya wants to be taken seriously as an actor.
The 22-year-old’s post-Disney Channel TV debut certainly deserves to be taken seriously, as does the work of the show’s charismatic ensemble cast. Created by Sam Levinson (son of famous filmmaker Barry Levinson), Euphoria follows the lives of a group of high school students navigating friendship, partying, and sex. It may not sound like the most novel concept for a television show, but it’s never been done quite like this. Think the U.K. version of Skins with more emotional complexity and a lot more penises—thirty penises in one scene, to be exact, according to the dick detectives over at The Hollywood Reporter.
Based on an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria is anchored by Rue, a 17-year-old opioid addict fresh off a stint in rehab. Viewers are almost immediately confronted with hard-to-watch flashbacks of the overdose that landed Rue in rehab and scenes in which she lies with ease to those she cares about most. It would be a challenging role for any young actor, but Zendaya quickly proves herself capable. In a particularly painful scene, she’s asked to improvise an oral presentation on what she did over the summer. She conveys an impressive range of emotions through her facial expressions alone as she recalls being hospitalized, goofing off with her little sister (Storm Reid), and clashing with her widowed mother (Nika King).
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