Euphoria’s Pandemic Specials Take Bold Risks

But risks don’t always pay off

The contained nature challenges the storytelling.
Photo courtesy of HBO

BHBO’s Euphoria is a hard television show to watch. This isn’t because it’s poorly made or a bad piece of content, but rather due to its impressive quality. It’s not just hard to watch but intentionally so, and to that end, it succeeds tremendously.

Euphoria, created by Sam Levinson (son of legendary screenwriter and director Barry Levinson), chronicles the story of Rue (played by Zendaya), a high schooler with a serious addiction problem. When Jules (Hunter Shaefer) moves to her school, Rue falls in love quickly, and Jules’ love with Rue ripples out to every aspect of their town.

There are many elements that make Euphoria’s first season so compelling. The performances, for one, are outstanding throughout. Zendaya specifically shows her full range, able to switch from wounded to venomous to head-over-heals in a matter of minutes, but the performances aren’t just about the performer.

Good actors need good source material, and luckily Euphoria has that, too. Levinson (writer and director of every season one episode) creates a dark, fully dimensional world full of depressed teenagers trying to find connection, often through sex and drugs. The material is so good and the actors so compelling, watching their problems feels like watching a good friend be put in one horrible situation after another. It’s hard to watch, but also engrossing.

The pacing and cinematography are also top notch, which in Euphoria are two halves of the same whole. The show moves at a rapid clip, moving from character to character and plotline to plotline with little room to breathe in between. This editing is matched with beautiful, fluid camera movement constantly whip-panning, pushing in, and pulling out from the actors. The edit and camera work together to create a dynamic show that barrels forward, taking the viewer along for the ride.

Euphoria season two was already supposed to be filmed by now, but because of COVID was cut short. In the meantime, Levinson decided to quickly write and direct two Euphoria specials to bide fans over. The first focuses on Rue, the second on Jules.

And unfortunately, things that made season one work is missing from these specials, either from lack of ability (they were shot under COVID guidelines) or a willful choice to be different. 

The actors still do well with the material, a few moments in each episode really stand out, but overall they feel lost in the material. Each special centers around a single conversation between a lead character and someone else as they dig into their past. There’s only so much digging that can be done though, before one starts repeating points like the TV equivalent of a broken record. If half of each one hour episode had been cut, the audience wouldn’t have missed a thing.

The inherently sedentary nature of each special also strips Euphoria of its visual flair. A few stylistic moments sprinkled in notwithstanding, the fluid camera and pacing is gone, replaced with simple (yet still beautiful) closeups. The barreling forward, the sense of urgency that pervaded season one has disappeared, replaced with drawn out talks and awkward conversation transitions.

The Euphoria specials do one thing really well: they provide new Euphoria content in the age of COVID. With health guidelines and safety, it makes sense the manic energy that made season one couldn’t be replicated, but they can’t shake the feeling that something’s missing.  The specials will whet the hunger of fans waiting for more, but do little outside of that. Watching them doesn’t as much captivate the viewer as turn one into a high schooler like that on the show, aimlessly swiping through a phone while the episodes play like background noise.

This is a selection from the Feb. 24 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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