The hit show is at risk of placing style over substance (pun not intended)
Every week it’s the same. We log onto our silly little social media accounts and scroll through the hundreds of #Euphoria memes trending on our timelines. Perhaps it’s “Bitch, you better be joking” or Maddy Banging On Door, Cassie Hiding in the Bathtub or Cal Jacobs with his flaccid dick in full view. Ever since the second season of the hit HBO show hit screens last month, the memes have been unavoidable. The hunch that each scene has been carefully engineered for maximum social media, even more so.
Back when the show aired its first season in 2019, Euphoria was heralded for its unapologetically raw snapshot of youth, by way of heavy themes such as love, addiction, and sexuality. Its highly stylised portrayal of a group of drug-addled teens in search of their own personal euphoria made it an instant hit. Like Skins before it, its nuanced, flawed, and sometimes X-rated (this is HBO, after all), take on growing up with the internet eschewed the typical teen-flick format of quaint, isolated worlds (Sex Education, Riverdale) in lieu of unsolicited dick pics, revenge porn, and findomination. Not to mention its zeitgeist-defining impact on fashion and bold make-up inspired a generation of Y2K-obsessed teens.
Why is it, then, that I find myself watching the second season of Euphoria and feeling pangs of disappointment? I was an early supporter, even going as far as to write an opinion piece championing all the things it got right about Gen Z. Bar the two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the second season should have been a similar success, especially given the higher budgets and new additions to the already star-studded cast (such as Dominic Fike’s alt-heartthrob Elliot and adult film actor Chloe Cherry’s heroin-addict Faye). Sure, the ‘When you go to Euphoria High’ memes circulating TikTok were funny at first. So was the bitesize shot of Maddy and Cassie at each other while pushing Nate in a stretcher. But, as each episode drops, the show has begun to feel too stylised, the memes too premeditated.
Think of Barbie Ferreira’s ‘Kat, you just have to love yourself’ montage in episode two, where a legion of body positivity, self-love, and mental health-adjacent influencer types swarm Kat’s room in a clunky attempt at tackling themes of toxic positivity. Or, Cassie’s 4AM multi-step self-care routine, the products of which feels directly pulled from TikTok’s Explore page. Last week’s opener, when Rue and Jules acted out references to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, Magritte’s “The Lovers II”, Frida Khalo, and Titanic, too, generated countless social media hype. All these moments feel steered to generate buzzy opinion pieces and Twitter hot takes. Like an hour-long music video that’s been distilled into seconds-long stills and photogenic moments, the show has lost the rawness that made it so relatable to begin with.
One of the things that made season one so groundbreaking was the aesthetics. Who remembers Maddy’s iconic I.Am.Gia set at the carnival? Or Jules’ angelic Halloween tribute to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet? Or that Bob Ross costume? Series make-up artist Donni Davy’s influence on IRL trends was also indisputable: her bold graphic liners could be seen on catwalks to award ceremonies to TikTok trends – and propelled a generation of teens into bold colours, graphic lines, and rhinestones.
But after two years of anticipation, this season’s looks, though impressive, feel too relentless and contrived: like they were made solely to generate a conveyor belt of memes and viral moments. Each episode is headline-grabbing outfits such as Maddy's cut-out dress and Amina Muaddi heels, Cassie’s baby blue wrap top, and Elliot’s Telfar hoodie, Kat in Mimi Wade, Jules sporting a Claire Barrow Alien hoodie. The weekly make-up looks also feel carefully designed for maximum social media engagement. Davy’s style breakdowns on Instagram garner thousands of likes, while every episode inspires countless arrays of copycats and how-to tutorials.
The memescape is catching on too: “There is no plot. TV shows exist only to generate viral images for memes so people are forced to watch, otherwise risk not getting the joke and fracturing their perpetually fragile sense of belonging,” reads one particularly insightful meme juxtaposed with an image of Maddy’s head edited into an Airpod. “Pretty colours and silly drama make brain go brrr,” comments one user. “Euphoria is Skins for cringey American zoomers,” says another.
Even at what should be its most profound, the show fails to deliver the emotional gut punch of the first season. In episode four, Rue overdoses and imagines herself being greeted in a church by Labyrinth singing “I’m Tired”. What should have been a moment of extreme pathos and reflection (Rue’s overdose at the end of season one is also soundtracked to Labyrinth) feels more style than substance. When something as serious as an overdose is made to look like a glossy LA music video (Drake as executive producer), and Labyrinth a zaddy angel of death, you can’t help but check out.
Maybe the IRL and entertainment world are collapsing in on each other. Maybe memes are simply how we process cultural events. As internet culture (memes, video games, social media, streaming) take an increasingly dominant role in our lives, the artefacts of pop culture (fashion, movies, TV, pop music) will no doubt have to take this into consideration to stay relevant. We see this already with shows like the Sopranos and Game of Thrones, which have both retroactively managed to sustain relevance through countless memes online. But when you don’t need to watch a show to grasp its plot, there’s room for concern. With Euphoria now confirmed for a third season, the show’s grip on online discourse only seems to be growing. Will it crack open its glossy shell and return to its more realist roots, or risk becoming a parody of itself completely?