When did ‘teen TV’ get so dark?

Teen dramas have covered serious issues for years, but ‘Euphoria’ is taking it to brilliant, albeit uncomfortable, new levels.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: (L-R) Hunter Schafer, Sam Levinson, Angus Cloud, and Zendaya a...
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On Sunday, Jan. 9, ahead of Euphoria’s season 2 premiere, Zendaya issued a content warning on her Instagram. It read:

I do want to reiterate to everyone that Euphoria is for mature audiences. This season, maybe even more so than the last, is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch. Please only watch it if you feel comfortable. Take care of yourself and know that either way you are still loved and I can still feel your support.

The episode, titled “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,” delivered on the expected continuation of season 1 drama surrounding addiction, sex, and self destruction, but also introduced some pretty brutal violence and escalating criminal situations. The premiere, coupled with the show’s star issuing a warning about it on Instagram, was enough to make you wonder why we watch at all. It’s a show about teens that’s not really appropriate for teens — and it also can be genuinely stressful for adult audiences. So what is it about this genre of dark, twisted teen programming that makes it so compulsively watchable?

To understand how we got to Euphoria, it’s worth taking a look back at other teen dramas that introduced young audiences to dark themes. Television is a portal for teenagers — especially for millennials who came of age before social media and high-speed internet. TV is where we learned about hard topics. Euphoria isn’t necessarily trying to be that kind of learning platform for teens, but its high stakes have roots in the shows that came before it.

The sci-fi/fantasy genre is certainly a starting point for darkness in the television landscape. Buffy the Vampire Slayer might have worked in pithy comedy, but the iconic 90s show delved into gloomy territory. Buffy had to constantly sacrifice herself to save the world from literal demons, while fighting with her own inner demons at the same time. She had a dark side that lusted after things she shouldn’t, like Spike and Angle, for example. Misfits — a show about a group of rag tag teens who are ordered into a juvenile community service program and gain mysterious powers after an electrical storm — was another show that saw young people struggling with power. Misfits seems akin to Euphoria in that it had a pervasive undertone that these kids were just trying to get by, but society was too unyielding to make it easy for them. Both shows featured the archetype of the extraordinary outcast, giving young viewers a new frame of reference for bullying and why people sometimes feel ostracized — and while Euphoria’s Rue isn’t a supernatural outcast, she certainly finds ways to ostracize herself.

Buffy and Misfits led up to one of the most prolific teen shows, The Vampire Diaries, which took similar themes but upped the ante on the brooding, fantastical escapism. In TVD we got to see characters wanting to turn their emotions off and just be evil. We saw lusty sex and love triangles. But most of all, we saw kids wanting to escape from the boring normalcy of regular life. They might have done it with vampirism and overwrought plot lines, but the narrative tie of escape can’t be denied. And while TVD is far more low brow shlock than the other shows we’re examining, its ability to give its teen characters the agency of adults in a fucked up world feels like a precursor to Euphoria as well.

You can also look to the vintage teen dramas more rooted in a recognizable reality. Shows like One Tree Hill brought in complicated family dynamics, mental illness, cheating, pregnancy scares, and becoming young parents — all accented with the normcore aesthetic of Appalachian middle class whiteness. Dawson’s Creek, with all of its grunge-but-make-it-expensive glamour, had similar narratives, but did it in a broodier New England way with more emphasis on the emo-ness of young life and less melodramatic plots like school shootings. And then you have the teen drama to end all teen dramas: The OC. I’d wager it was by far the most popular during its time, and perhaps the best example of a precursor to Euphoria. The OC let its characters be self destructive like our ensemble cast on Euphoria. They partied constantly, faced serious struggles with addiction, and let both of those things pull them into unsavory situations and crime. The OC definitely feels like the privileged, millennial, suburban beach big sister to Euphoria’s grimey, Gen Z, kaleidoscopic, unnamed L.A.

Degrassi: The Next Generation had a similar role in the early 2000s, as pointed out by writer and podcast host Molly Lambert, who jokingly referred to Euphoria as “A24 Degrassi.” The show’s original group of teens dealt with issues such as eating disorders, domestic abuse, cocaine addiction, date rape, and even a school shooting, along with a pregnancy and abortion storyline that wasn’t allowed to air in the United States until years after it aired in Canada, where the show was based.

Groundwork has undeniably been laid for what is now Euphoria’s highest stakes. And while in retrospect it might seem like the aforementioned 90s and early aughts shows needed their own content warnings, they were a bit more subdued in making their themes digestible for a young audience. Euphoria on the other hand doesn’t seem to mind being triggering. Many have taken to social media to discuss how the show can precipitate flashbacks to their own troubled teen years and be generally triggering. Others have said it makes them not want to have kids.

This second season also seems to be escalating the sexual aspects on the show as well. It feels like the show now takes every character with a sexual story line and must portray that character having graphic sex in order to fulfill the narrative. There is no innuendo — only borderline pornographic scenes. For example, in Season 2’s second episode, Kat’s character has a sex fantasy that’s graphically portrayed, when it very easily could have been suggested. And Euphoria being watched by adults adds to the discomfort, because teenage characters are having so much explicit sex on the show.

And yet, Euphoria remains a ratings bonanza. With 2.4 million viewers tuning in for the premier alone, a new record was set for HBO Max viewership. It might be impossible to answer why a show about teens that is inappropriate for teens is so fascinating to adults, but I’d bet it’s largely due to the level of escapism that Euphoria delves into in its own world, and in turn provides for ours. Nothing helps turn your brain off like submerging it into a terrifying fictional reality — and there is perhaps nothing as terrifying in a real world sense as remembering the dumb shit you did during the often painful time of teenagedom.