With the second season of HBO’s original drama, EUPHORIA, Sam Levinson confirms his status in the industry as a fraudulent and unserious show-runner
*Minor spoiler warning for those who have not yet watched season two of EUPHORIA*
The second season of HBO’s original drama, EUPHORIA, easily one of the most popular shows on planet earth currently, came and went with a resounding whimper. Despite all of the praise the show gets for being an “honest and accurate portrayal on drug addiction, anxiety, mental illness, etc, etc”, it’s a pretty wretched and unpleasant viewing experience, shoddily made and handled with little-to-no care.
The first season wasn’t excellent, by any means. In fact, I would describe it as merely “decent” and certainly unworthy of the critical acclaim it was receiving. It looked absolutely gorgeous, though, even if I basically took nothing out of it, kind of like how I’m left feeling after most Sofia Coppola (a director I genuinely love) and Harmony Korine movies. Some of the acting was strong (namely, Angus Cloud, Hunter Schafer, and Colman Domingo) and it was dumb enough that I could enjoy it at times, despite the fact that the final two episodes of the first season were among the worst. Then the two special episodes came out, fairly early into the pandemic, and I was genuinely blown away by them. They were grounded in reality, never doing too much, and were actually cleverly written. It was also the first time I saw what everybody else saw in Zendaya. I was tentatively excited about the prospects of a second season.
And then the second season came… It was all of the worst aspects of the first season leaned into with hardly any of the good aspects from the previous iteration present. The entire second season was shot on film as opposed to digital, a fact I normally would always gloriously celebrate, except somehow, it managed to make the show look worse. The show in season two was never visually interesting at any moment, so anytime I was reminded about the fact that it was all shot on film, it only made me more furious at the pretentious and narcissistic show-runner, Sam Levinson.
Let’s address Levinson, the creator and executive producer of EUPHORIA, who also happens to write and direct every episode of the series. Again, normally I would be a huge fan of a director with total creative control that doesn’t allow studio interference. I love a writer-director, too. When David Lynch made the greatest artistic accomplishment of my lifetime in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017), he had sole control over every aspect of the project thanks to Showtime. But David Lynch is an auteur, a real and true visionary with complex and interesting ideas and unique perspectives. Sam Levinson is not an auteur; in fact, Sam Levinson is a hack and almost entirely incompetent as a creative. Much of the blame for the very lackluster season two has to be placed at his feet, seeing as he has unmitigated control and creative authority.
Season two feels as if it was made with twitter in mind, as opposed to in an effort to actually tell an evocative and effective story. One of the most mind-boggling decisions by Levinson, in regards to season two, was the increased role that Sydney Sweeney (Cassie) had this year. I thought Sweeney was fine in the first season. She never stood out as bad, but she also never blew me away. She had a less showy role than Zendaya and Jacob Elordi as well as a less interesting role than Hunter Schafer and Angus Cloud and certainly a less fun role than Alexa Demie, so in terms of importance, she comfortably slotted in as like, the sixth-most important character in the show, right around where she belonged. This year, with her elevated role that she wasn’t suited for, she reminded me of an NBA player who seemed like a good piece coming off the bench as a sixth-man who could give you some instant offense, but the minute that they’re asked to start, all of their deficiencies become apparent and they’re no longer able to be hid on defense. Season two of EUPHORIA exposed Sydney Sweeney as a system-player.
Perhaps it’s the god-awful writing Levinson had Sweeney working with or the miserable direction he gave her, but Sweeney gives one of the more memorably bad performances in a mainstream TV show that I can recall in quite some time. For one, she becomes the object of affection for Jacob Elordi’s Nate in this season. Perhaps this could’ve been an interesting development, except that it makes hardly any sense given what we know about these characters from the previous season AND worst of all, because these two actors have next-to-no chemistry whatsoever. The actors will be kissing, undressing, jumping into bed with each other, but it all feels so stale and empty. Contrast that with one of the only true notable scenes shared between Alexa Demie (Maddy) and Elordi where Elordi extorts Demie by gunpoint for something she took from him: It was violent and disturbing but somehow still unbelievably sexy and wonderfully shot, a true highlight of the season. They display more chemistry in five minutes than Sweeney and Elordi do in an entire seven episodes up to that point. Sweeney just doesn’t work this season. There is no nuance in her performance. It’s all just unhinged screaming and crying, something any actor can do in their sleep. It’s boring and the more it drags on, the more mind-numbing it becomes.
I will credit Sweeney for the fearlessness she displays with her nude scenes, though. Of the main cast, she’s the only one who was regularly getting naked this season (and in the last season, too, for what it’s worth) and while that doesn’t make her performance actually good, there is something admirable about somebody using their beauty and vulnerability as a weapon to improve their cache. Art is so corporate and sexlessly sterile at this point that it genuinely becomes refreshing seeing a young star so uninhibited and it genuinely must be commended that Sweeney approaches the material with such confidence, even if the content tends to border on excessive, in her case.
The other reprehensible aspect of the second season of EUPHORIA was the complete neutering of the Jules character, played perfectly by Hunter Schafer in season one. Schafer was easily the most impressive actress in the first season, for my money, and in the second season she’s rendered nearly useless, almost never having anything to do. In the second half of the eight episode season, she never has more than one scene in any episode and her line count is as follows: 14 lines in episode five, 15 lines in episode six, zero (!!) lines in episode seven, and three lines in episode eight. In the first season, Schafer as Jules was revelatory and completely integral in making the show work. She was the straw that stirred the drink and genuinely the emotional heartbeat of the series. In season two, she’s relegated to as much screen-time and dialogue as characters like Barbie Ferreira’s Kat and certainly less time is spent on her than nepotism-baby Maude Apatow as Lexi (actually one of the stronger parts of the second season, but still a completely superfluous character) or Eric Dane’s Cal. Even newcomer Dominic Fike as Elliot, who starts out as a decent enough character but becomes a bit insufferable by the end of the season, has far more to do than Schafer. It’s an insane travesty that a show could have an actress as proficient as her and still manage to completely underutilize her and botch her character as a whole. It seemed like once Levinson realized this season was going to be about Rue spiraling and cutting off the people close to her, he cast Jules aside, despite the fact that Schafer is more than capable of carrying scenes on her own independent of Rue.
Maude Apatow and Angus Cloud as Lexi and Fez become an item this year, too, and while it doesn’t always work, it is easily the most charming and endearing aspect of the second season. Angus Cloud again delivers a terrific performance, though, it’s easy to assume that he isn’t actually doing much acting. Apatow is more than up for the task of the increased role she’s given, but I found the way in which her story in season two wrapped up to be pretty underwhelming as a whole (devoting one-fourth of your season to the play your eighth-biggest character wrote seems particularly silly, especially when it mostly didn’t provide anything all that enjoyable to the show). Jacob Elordi as Nate also continues to be completely underrated. He’s completely slimy and a total asshole, but he displays quite a bit of restraint and control as an actor and rarely gives a completely obvious line-read. I think it’s certainly a stretch that Levinson tries to have him redeemed in the end of the second season, but as a whole, the dynamism he brings to the screen always makes him one of the more enjoyable presences on the show.
Colman Domingo as Ali, Rue’s sponsor, oft underutilized here, is the only person giving a truly seasoned, veteran performance. Every single moment he appears onscreen, there is an instant sense of relief. The audience is always in good hands whenever he’s leading a scene and he truly is one of the only people in the cast able to navigate the schlocky dialogue and make it actually sound like it’s well-written. Alexa Demie as Maddy is doing much of what Alexa Demie always does, which is basically just giving a one-note performance where she plays herself, but the reality is, you can get away with doing that when the performance you’re giving is actually entertaining and fun, which hers always is.
Zendaya is the one everybody always raves about here. She’s the face of the show and one of the most famous people alive. When season one concluded, I was struck by how much people glowed about her performance; while I thought it was good, I also think it’s a bit easier to play somebody riddled with addiction or illness or things of that nature. She always has more to do that will naturally make her more “interesting” because she’s flailing around or screaming about needing pills or having a breakdown. Still, I thought her performance lacked the subtlety of some of her peers. The one time I felt that wasn’t true was in her special episode, featuring only her and Colman Domingo, where she was genuinely quite impressive. I mostly feel similarly about her now as I did after season one: Technically impressive, certainly a strong actress, but nobody I am running to give an Emmy to. She does, however, shoulder the only genuinely great episode of the season on her own (episode five), one where she is on the run from EVERYBODY, leaving havoc and destruction in her wake as she avoids going to rehab, so she must be praised for that.
Season two of EUPHORIA was a miserable slog, designed to get people on twitter retweeting screen-caps from individual episodes as opposed to actually telling a good story. For as crazy as every episode seems, ultimately nothing of note ever really truly happens. The better actors and actresses are left with little to do for much of the eight episodes, while the lesser cast-mates are often asked to do the most, guaranteeing that almost every episode has multiple moments that are headache-inducing and grating. The writing is also sloppy and half-baked. This post has taken me a little over two hours to write, so it feels like I took more time out of my life to write and think about EUPHORIA than Sam Levinson ever did when conceiving his second season. And it doesn’t even look pretty any longer. It’s bland and dull, with far too much nonsensical camera movement that feels thrown in just “cause”. I lay most of the blame towards Levinson, seeing as he has almost total autonomy with what gets put out as the final product and, if I had my way, he would not be seeing heaven.
This is a show littered with tons of talented and beautiful people and this was the best they could do? I’ve had friends act like I’m crazy for trying to engage with EUPHORIA in a meaningful way or taking it seriously (they’ll say things like, “It’s just a goofy teen drama like SKINS or GOSSIP GIRL”, etc, etc), but personally, I think that’s lazy; art is meant to be engaged with and taken seriously, certainly when it tries to tackle serious issues like addiction and mental illness and especially when it receives almost universal acclaim, awards consideration, and is one of the most popular shows on the planet. GOSSIP GIRL was never up for any Emmys. SKINS was never hailed as a critical darling. And the art we as a community all consume and prop up matters. It’s the same reason when I review movies from the MCU that I hold them to the same standards as other movies and don’t just write them off as “silly superhero movies”; if something is universally consumed and culturally ubiquitous it becomes even MORE important to hold it under a microscopic lens critically, in my opinion. Thankfully, there won’t be another season of EUPHORIA until 2024 (hopefully that will be the final one) so we don’t have to spend any more Sundays thinking about it. It’s genuinely unfortunate that, despite being in what many would call the “Golden Era” of television, this is the show that gets the most eyeballs on it regularly. SUCCESSION is right there, people!