Euphoria season 2 review: Overwrought Zendaya drama loses sight of its own strengths in Sky Atlantic series

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Euphoria is available to watch in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV
Zendaya in Euphoria Season 2 (Credit: HBO)Zendaya in Euphoria Season 2 (Credit: HBO)
Zendaya in Euphoria Season 2 (Credit: HBO) | © 2021 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Euphoria never quite seems like a show that knows what it wants to be.

It wants to be shocking, certainly. Season 2 of the HBO drama – available in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV – maintains the same sort of arch confidence at the first. It’s near-constantly calling attention to itself, with a reflexive “look at me” quality that almost dares you to complain. It’s a show that, while not exactly courting controversy, wouldn’t be doing its job right if someone, somewhere, wasn’t petitioning against it – indeed, you get the sense that creator Sam Levinson would be disappointed if Euphoria debuted to rave reviews only.

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But by now that’s priced into the equation; it’s difficult to be provocative when that’s exactly what people expect. The question going into Season 2 – which begins almost three years after the first season concluded, a long time for any viewer to stay with a show but particularly those from a teenage audience – is whether or not Euphoria has any tricks left after the shock value has worn off, or if it’s a series with a fundamentally very limited range.

Across the first 7 episodes of Season 2, Euphoria never does quite manage to reinvent itself. Even worse, there’s a sense that it loses sight of its own strengths as well: it’s a show so preoccupied with one particular vision of its own existence that it never quite realises all the other things it does well, and all the other directions it could – and likely should – push itself in.

Two scenes from the season premiere typify this. The first sees one character drawn further into a world of drugs and violence, threatened by a dealer higher up in the supply chain; the second sees a different character hiding in a bathroom, desperate not to be caught sleeping with someone she shouldn’t. They’re both moments of suspense, but where one is tense the other is completely inert. Euphoria is least interesting when it’s being a crime drama, but there’s a version of itself somewhere that could be a really good teen drama.

It’s good at a couple of things, really. Euphoria can be quite funny, occasionally indulging in a sort of irreverent humour that almost makes you wish it went full-tilt comedy. It’s best when it recognises that any stories about teenagers are always heightened and exaggerated, so sidesteps any obligation to realism – not in the sense that it’s better when it’s depicting Things That Simply Don’t Happen To Teenagers, but rather its more imaginative moments of flair and flourish, reimagining exposition as a slideshow presentation or a behind the scenes TV interview.

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Still, it rarely feels interested in those aspects of itself, opting instead for a similar self-conscious, trying-just-a-little-too-hard maximalism as last season; anyone hoping this series would learn a few lessons from the genuinely very good, mature and pared-back Christmas specials released in 2020 will likely be disappointed. It makes a few improvements (giving more space to Colman Domingo and Maude Apatow in particular) but often finds itself making the same mistakes too (Euphoria is once again baffling for how fascinated it is by Jacob Elordi’s Nate, a villain so consistently callous he’s the least realistic teenager of any of them). At its worst, the series is messy and overwrought, straining to be heard over its own noise.

Nonetheless, this is still Zendaya’s series first and foremost, and Euphoria remains dedicated to giving her a showcase for her talents. You can already tell which episode will be her awards submission piece, full of screaming histrionics and manic energy; she’s much better, though, in the moments of quiet cruelty and cold disregard where it feels like Euphoria has suddenly become strikingly observant. It’s the former that could win Zendaya her next Emmy, but it’s the latter that she’ll deserve it for, letting that world-weary affect curdle into sheer contempt in a way that feels truer than anything else Euphoria commits to the screen.

It’s true of the show in general, really: Euphoria is much better when it’s quiet than when it’s loud. Not in the sense that it shouldn’t be heightened or exaggerated – the first half of the finale is probably the best episode of the season, and it certainly isn’t understated – but in the sense that sometimes it just needs to get out of its own way. Like any teen drama – but particularly one full of rising stars like this – Euphoria has a fast-approaching expiration date. While a third series is near certain, a fourth feels unlikely; hopefully, it can improve on the second in all the ways the second didn’t quite manage to improve on the first.

Euphoria is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from January 10 in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US. I’ve seen 7 of 8 episodes of Euphoria Season 2 before writing this piece.

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