When Zendaya won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2020, she was already an international superstar. But Euphoria had not yet become the phenomenon it soon would be. Over the intervening months of pandemic lockdown, audiences caught up with the first season of creator Sam Levinson’s drugged-out high-school fever dream. By the time the second season premiered in January 2022, Euphoria averaged 16.3 million viewers an episode — the best performing HBO series since Game of Thrones. The show, which is also nominated for Best Drama Series, has made stars of its rookie cast, catapulting names like Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, and Hunter Schafer into the stratosphere of Gen-Z celebrity. This year, Zendaya shares her nomination laurels with co-star Sydney Sweeney, who is nominated for supporting roles in both Euphoria and the limited series White Lotus.
Marshaling this force of young talent is Levinson. Drawing from his own experience with substance abuse, Levinson (the son of Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson) has conjured a gritty, hallucinatory vision of teenage excess in all its splendor and pain. Although at times hard to watch for its devastatingly raw portrayals of trauma and abuse, Euphoria simply looks and sounds fantastic. Levinson and his cinematographer, Marcell Rév, bring to the show a vibrant, athletic cinematic language rarely seen in television, and the incessant pulse of expertly curated pop music from opening scene to closing credits fuels the hypnotic allure.
While the first season revelled in an all-night party vibe, the second wrestles with morning-after regrets. One character stages a school play re-creating events from previous episodes like an ugly, soulful mirror exposing her classmates’ misadventures. Levinson relishes the artifice of this play-within-a-play, match-cutting actions with their staged double as if he has an all-access portal through past, present, and performance, burrowing wildly into the teens’ frustrations and anxieties.
But style often subsumes script. There’s a shagginess to the second season not present in the taut, go-for-broke first. Characters are undeveloped; plot lines get dropped; non-sequiturs abound. Still, with so much to look at and so much to savor, a couple loose ends can be forgiven. Few shows on television are this ambitious and this affecting.