Ninety seconds. That’s how long it takes to see the first penis of Euphoria’s second season. The first emotional gut punch comes moments later. Fans of Sam Levinson’s gritty teen drama have been waiting nearly three years for round two but we still remember the routine: shock, heartache, shock, heartache. Rinse and repeat.
The pattern is just one of the many characteristics that first distinguished Euphoria from its coming-of-age contemporaries on TV in 2019. The show’s highly stylised art direction, graphic sex scenes, full-frontal nudity, and hefty subject matter are some of the others. Now, after two comparatively quiet bridge episodes last summer, Euphoria is back to regularly scheduled programming. Levinson once again places his cohort of badly behaved high schoolers onto an emotional minefield. Inevitably, the teens step on each one, releasing psychological shrapnel and a good deal of glitter as they go.
But back to that penis. The first episode revisits Euphoria’s love of cold opens. The beginning moments play out like the start of a Martin Scorsese film. Rue (Zendaya’s heroin-addicted anti-heroine) is our charming unreliable narrator. She reels off chunks of speedy exposition in a signature mumble. This time, Rue is narrating the backstory of Fezco (her drug dealer with a heart of gold played by Angus Cloud) and his relationship with his gangster grandmother (The Irishman’s Kathrine Narducci). The penis in question belongs to a guy whose legs she just shot. Twice. Viewers will welcome the new focus on Fez, a character who felt unfairly benched in the show’s first season. The same goes for Lexi (Maude Apatow), who is given a slightly meta arc when she pledges to stop being the sidekick of her own life. Fresh off her scene-stealing role in HBO’s The White Lotus, Sydney Sweeney gives a career-high performance as Cassie who grows increasingly unhinged across the eight episodes. Some might call it melodrama, but every teenage girl can recognise the reality in Sweeney’s theatrics.
Still, the sad reality of an ensemble cast remains: one character can only thrive at the expense of another. The problem is exacerbated with a cast as well-rounded as Euphoria’s. Each actor deserves more. Even those with a lot of screentime could do with extra. It’s a shame that Hunter Schafer is not given more to do here – especially after she gave a startlingly good performance in the Jules-focused episode last year. But Jules this season moves mostly as a shadow, existing only in her relationship to Rue.
Speaking of Rue, Zendaya reminds audiences why she’s the youngest Emmy winner for Best Actress. The actor plays the waifish character with an unexpected physicality. She captivates in a strung-out state with just the flicker of an eyelid. Episode five alone all but guarantees the actor another award.
Each Levinson release (Assassination Nation, Malcolm & Marie) ignites the debate of style versus substance. To the delight of some – and the dismay of others – the director has made moody lighting, needle drops and hyperkinetic camera movement his cachet. If Euphoria’s second season is anything to go by, the director seems unperturbed by his critics. Levinson’s lens is as agile as ever. It pushes and pulls, staggering left and right. In small doses, it is intoxicating – the visuals crest and crest while the subject matter pulls further and further down – but now on its second season, the edge has dulled. Instead, it can all feel a bit nauseating. It’s when Levinson’s camera stalls that the show feels its sharpest. Mercifully as the season goes on, this happens more and more.
Another series of Euphoria was always going to be tricky. Given the show initially leaned on shock value, a second season (and the ones that will surely follow) would have to sidestep the inevitable diminishment of that shock. But Levinson keeps his foot on the pedal in other ways, with the support of a cast who are only getting better. Remarkably, Euphoria continues to justify its provocative existence – penises and all.
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