'Euphoria' review: HBO's teen saga returns, more deranged than before

Emmy-winner Zendaya is back in the second season of the doped-up drama.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Exhilarating and exhausting, dark and deranged, hilarious and hellish. “Euphoria” is back.

The HBO series about messed-up teens in a messed-up world debuted waaaay back in 2019 and it was shocking. It likely featured more penis pictures than any show in TV history, its main character was in a constant haze of heavy drugs, there was rape, domestic violence, betrayal, robbery and hormones gone wild. 

Zendaya in "Euphoria."

Not to mention the eye makeup. “Euphoria” deserves a special Emmy for eye makeup. Really, you gotta see it.

It was thoroughly enjoyable if profoundly disturbing. Now it’s back for a second season and just as enjoyable if even more disturbing.

“Euphoria” revolves around Rue Bennett (Emmy winner Zendaya), a teen tomboy who overdosed, went to rehab and then promptly returned to doing drugs when released. In the first episode she met new trans girl in town Jules (Hunter Schafer, extraordinary) and by the end of the first season they were friends turned something more.

Rue is adjacent to a group of girls she grew up with. There’s good girl Lexi (Maude Apatow) and Lexi’s sex bomb sister Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), Cassie’s best friend the vixen Maddy (Alexa Demie) and the full-sized Kat (Barbie Ferriera). All save sweet Lexi had a string of sexual adventures and misadventures over the course of the first season.

Augmenting those key characters — hey, it’s HBO, you have to have at least 50 people in the core cast — were handsome-but-dangerous jock Nate (Jacob Elordi); Nate’s powerful but troubled father Cal (Eric Dane); Rue’s poor mom (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid); and Cassie’s wine-guzzling mom (Alanna Ubach). 

Watching it all from a, er, different perspective is drop-out drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) and his much younger brother and business partner, Ashtray (Javon “Wanna” Walton).

That’s right, the kid’s name is Ashtray and you find out why in the second’s season’s opener, which features an absolutely explosive guest appearance by Kathrine Narducci (“The Sopranos”) as Fezco’s grandmother. The sequence sets the tone for the season, adding ultraviolence to the show’s equation, and starting a parade of backstories that continue to add depth and context to both the characters and the show.

Understand, pretty much nobody here is anywhere near happy. They are mostly spoiled, self-destructive, painfully shallow and tortured. In the first season such cluelessness was outright funny at times; in the second it becomes plain dangerous.

This shift is mostly personified in Rue. Nobody can play a stoner falling off a bicycle better than Zendaya, whose gifts for physical comedy and wry commentary were on full display in the first season. But as the second season progresses Rue’s obsession with drugs and inability to cope with life take a mean turn.

For all its outrageousness, though, “Euphoria” deals with pretty typical teen dramatics much of the time. Two of the main storylines this season involve love triangles. Another links up good girl and bad guy. Even the cautionary drug tale is standard stuff. 

But creator Sam Levinson always pushes further than most, shoving the desperation and disillusionment of a young and apparently mostly hopeless generation right in front of the camera. It’s strong stuff. It’s meant to be. “Euphoria” is its own kind of twisted high.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 



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