The tagline for HBO’s new teen series Euphoria is "feel something." Somewhere between a teen girl being choked during sex at a party and a second underage girl being sexually exploited in a hotel room by an adult man; however, the only thing I felt was that I wanted to look away.
Loosely adapted from an Israeli series of the same name, Euphoria is HBO’s first big venture into content for teens — not counting the covert episodes of Real Sex we’d all sneakily watch after our parents went to bed. It’s clear that the series wants to use what the network is best known for (prestige, but also explicit, drama) and wrap it in a package designed for the youth. Yet Euphoria’s version of “authentic content” for teenagers means content that is aggressively sexual and explicit in its portrayal of sexuality.
The thesis of Euphoria is that porn and the digital age have created a perfect storm for teens. They no longer just have sex, they perform it, both in private interactions (in a move straight out of pornography, Algee Smith’s character chokes Sydney Sweeting’s during sex without her consent) and via the photos and videos they pass around (most of the women on the show send nudes or have graphic photos leaked.)
"I think most people’s first sexual encounters happen through the lens of pornography," Euphoria creator Sam Levinson told Refinery29 at the show’s recent press junket in Los Angeles. "I’m not saying that pornography is good or bad, I have no moral judgment of it. It is the world that we live in, and it precedes human interaction. I think that in and of itself is where it gets complicated: The expectations one has before a sexual situation, or the pressure one has to live up to something that they’ve seen. I think that’s where it gets tricky, and it’s unique to this generation."
It may be Levinson’s intention to comment on what the digital age is doing to teen’s sex lives, but the line between commenting on porn and becoming it is blurry.
That’s because Euphoria only knows one way to explore teen sex, and that’s to treat its characters like they are amateur porn stars — not merely fumbling through a world where these are the people they are supposed to emulate.
Most of the young women of Euphoria are sexualized from the jump, given little initial backstory but plenty of screen time to hook up. In Euphoria’s defense, each episode focuses more heavily on one character and fleshes them out (only four were made available to press prior to the show’s premiere).
For the record, the young adult cast was taken care of on set during sex scenes. An intimacy coach was brought in and acted as a liaison between the cast, director, and crew, something the cast said they appreciated. HBO first hired “intimacy coordinators” for their shows in October of 2018. Actress Emily Meade of The Deuce reportedly spearheaded the intimacy coordinator initiative after she asked HBO executives to provide one for the sex-heavy series. The network now provides them for all their series.
Still, an intimacy coach can’t change scenes that read like the opening of particularly bad porn. In the first episode, Maddy (Alexa Demie) propositions a stranger in ex-boyfriend Nate’s (Jacob Elordi) pool as revenge. Maddy has zero issues with the fact that the video of her and this random guy getting it on will be distributed to the entire school, despite the fact that Euphoria makes it clear it’s a real threat to the young women: Cassie (Sweeting) already had her nude photos distributed (we see them), earning her a “reputation” that dictates how the men on the show treat her.
At the very same party, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) decides to lose her virginity on a whim to a stranger, all because her friends chided her for being a 16-year-old virgin. Her first sexual encounter is uploaded to PornHub, without her consent. After receiving extremely sexual positive comments on the video, she finds “empowerment” through camming. She wears lingerie and a cat mask as a much older man with a micropenis masturbates to her, asking her to shame him while he does. We see the whole thing.
Jules (Hunter Schafer) — one of the best characters on the series specifically because she feels like a real teen — meets 40something Cal (Eric Dane) online and has rough sex with him on a hotel bed. The camera rarely leaves her face as she winces in pain. A comment on how men exploit vulnerable women (Jules is a trans woman who has difficulty finding romance IRL), or a graphic scene of an adult man having sex with a 16-year-old? Euphoria believes it’s the former, forgetting that the message gets muddied when we are forced to watch an adult man purr in the ear of a teenager "You’re so clean."
"Authentic" was the buzzword at the Euphoria junket (most of the cast gushed about how excited they were to tell stories of their generation), but whether or not these sexual encounters could happen to a real teen is really irrelevant. That being said, the show seems allergic to any sexual encounters that have real emotional depth or depict sex as anything other than animalistic in nature. Where is the fumbling as one attempts to find what they actually like in bed? The sweet moments between two teens who really, really like each other?
Teenagers certainly do watch HBO, but it’s adults that buy the cable package. It will mostly be adults watching these graphic simulations of teen sex...and that is, err, uncomfortable to think about. Is Euphoria actually depicting teens as they really are, or is it driving home the point that teens should be having, or at least are having, the type of sex seen in pornography? And why, exactly, should adults want to watch it?