Euphoria’s overwrought second series loses sight of its own strengths

Rue (Zendaya) is standing facing the left of the image. She looks half asleep, but her face is illuminated by a golden light.

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 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.

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 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.

My review of Euphoria season 2 for National World.

Odd show, this. I went back to look at what I said when the first series was airing, almost exactly a million years ago in June 2019, and I had found it basically messy but quite interesting, even pretty good at times. (I did completely fall off it in the end though – took me months and months to watch the finale, and I only got around to the 2020 specials in the past few days – which maybe says a lot about the conclusion I reached in the end.)

For the most part though the second series didn’t quite hit the same notes that I liked about the first series, and really doubled down on the bits that I found least interesting. Bit of a shame, really, because it’s a show that very occasionally shows these flashes of brilliance, and I wish there was a little more of that to it.

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Weekly Watchlist #3 (16th Sept – 22nd Sept)

weekly watchlist 3 defending the guilty will sharpe loudest voice russell crowe roger ailes the cameron years david cameron on the record

Back again.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

Started watching this because it had Will Sharpe in it, mainly, and he was so good in Flowers. Actually I figured he’d be writing this too, which was a big part of why I was interested (again, really, go and watch Flowers, he wrote it, it’s brilliant) – he didn’t write it, but he’s still great in it, so it balances out I think.

I liked it, anyway, and I’m definitely inclined to stick with it. It’s quite ostentatiously pilot-y in places, paying off lines from earlier in the episode right up until the credits, and you can definitely sense how specifically constructed it’s been – but, equally, there’s an obvious level of competence to it that stops it ever feeling grating. The cast are hugely charming, too, and this has clearly got the potential to develop into something pretty memorable.

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

What I like most about Euphoria is the moments when it realises it doesn’t have to be realistic. I mean, granted, it’s never that realistic – it thrives in the space that separates optimism and cynicism, fantasy and nightmare, never quite the parents’ worst fears nor the teens’ great expectations, injecting both with a note of scepticism and, lets be honest, deep pretension – but still. Recognising that it often already veers on the exaggerated, because stories about teenagers always do, leaning into that is where its most impressive – so sidestepping any obligation to realism to instead commit to a 70s crime drama spoof, or indeed a Larry Stylinson sex scene, is where Euphoria is at its best. (Although, that said, I’m never fond of those House-esque ‘inside the body’ medical shots. Don’t bother, they’re never worth it.)

It still isn’t perfect. (Well, Zendaya is, but everything around her somewhat less so.) I’m not sure if I’d like it to lean a little further into the almost anthology-esque style of the openings focused on each character, or to go the other way and integrate the plotlines a little more – or, indeed, if that’d make a difference at all. But it’s been a mostly strong if occasionally shaky series so far, and I’m interested to see how the finale ties that all together.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I say this after every episode of Stath Lets Flats, but I think A Stressfully Date is the best episode of the series so far. I mentioned already how impressive Jamie Demetriou’s knack for physical comedy is, but so are all those idiosyncratic little word choices – “like a red metal” is basically meaningless, but in context, it’s sublime.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I would watch a Tom/Cousin Greg spinoff. Or, really, just more of them every episode. Consistently my favourite part of any given episode, alongside all my other favourite parts of any given episode.

The Cameron Years & The David Cameron Interview (BBC One & ITV)

Putting these ones together because in many respects they were functionally identical – actually, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Cameron’s sections in each were recorded on the same day, as part of the same press session?

Anyway, I wasn’t especially impressed – neither were anywhere close to interrogative enough, they were far too passive to be of much note. Specifically the BBC version, actually; I wasn’t especially impressed by the choice to remove the journalist’s side of the conversation, presenting it solely as Cameron’s own narration, straight to camera. Not a huge amount of room for insight – it’s probably the longest advert for a book I’ve ever sat through.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

The second episode is where I started to understand The Loudest Voice better, I think – its 9/11 episode is an often frantic, at times chilling piece, and I think here starts to make the case for this series as something approaching a vital piece of drama.

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Weekly Watchlist #1 (1st Sept – 7th Sept)

weekly watchlist 1 succession this way up a confession martin freeman aisling bea jeremy strong sarah snook reviews british tv television alex moreland

A new thing I’m trying out, which I figure is basically self-explanatory. I watch a lot of stuff, a lot of which I never actually end up writing about, so this seemed like a good way to keep track of it all – with aspects of it, I suspect, ending up as first drafts of ideas that might turn into full articles.

I am not exactly sure how consistent this is going to be, whether it’ll definitely be every week, if I’ll write something about everything I end up watching or maybe just list some, whether it’ll go beyond television to include anything else I might watch – we’ll see, basically.

But, anyway. Some short-form thoughts on some stuff I saw this week:

A Confession (ITV)

I’m increasingly uncomfortable with true crime dramas like this, and I have been for a while now – the sort of programme that takes real tragedies, stories that belong to real victims, and reducing all that pain and suffering down to a collection of ITV clichés about a stoic policeman who’s sad about not seeing his wife enough. “Based on a true story” ends up little more than a marketing flourish for a Martin Freeman star vehicle, rather than an acknowledgment of the people at the heart of this story.

What struck me particularly about A Confession, though, was this long, sweeping shot of scenery, set to mournful music – exactly the sort of thing Broadchurch lifted from scandi-noir crime dramas, positioning A Confession, quite pointedly, alongside these fictional dramas. It feels like the wrong approach – particularly, actually, for a drama adapting this story, which surely should be about examining the nuances of the legal system rather than aping the structure of a straightforward whodunnit.

I’ll stick with it, albeit only because I think I could probably get an article out of it.

Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX, BBC Two)

Such an impressively, compulsively watchable series – which always sounds like faint praise, but I think actually that’s a more meaningful feat than its necessarily recognised as, especially given the deluge of competitors a series has to distinguish itself against these days – and I’m really kicking myself that it took me so long to actually get around to starting the second series.

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I’m three episodes into Euphoria, and I’ve had my doubts so far – charming though Zendaya is, the opening two instalments felt like they were much more about making bold, provocative statements of intent rather than telling any particular story, and anyway, I’m not so sure how much I actually enjoy watching teenagers going through, well, heavy shit.

But then the third episode was a considerably more idiosyncratic, and interesting, piece of television; any programme that can pull off a Larry Stylinson sex scene or intercut a lecture on dick pic etiquette with footage of Charles Manson is something I’m inclined to stick with at least a while longer.

Manifest (NBC, Sky One)

This is pretty awful. It’s a show about a plane that disappeared, and then reappeared five years later, and to be honest it almost feels like a programme that would be more at home five years ago – in the end, it’s just another Lost wannabe. I’ve watched six episodes of this now, even though it is pretty awful; it’s not even accidentally compelling the way The Resident was. Probably gonna give up on this sooner rather than later.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

This is consistently the highlight of my week (honestly, any moment I spend not watching Succession is a moment where I am frankly not as happy as I would be if I were watching Succession), and I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up in the number one spot when I end up putting together my best of 2019 list.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I’m stunned at Jamie Demetriou’s skill at physical comedy. He’s so, so good.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

Early days yet with this one, but I’m gonna stick with it – I’m always quite interested in stories that take place in the late 90s and early 2000s, covering events I was alive for but never really wholly conscious of at the time, and the journalism angle helps as well too obvs. Haven’t quite worked out how I feel about Russell Crowe’s performance though yet, particularly the prosthetics – I can’t tell if I think they accentuate or detract from his portrayal of Ailes – but we’ll see. And, you know, if nothing else, it’s only 7 episodes.

The Mash Report (BBC Two)

Some years ago, I wrote an article about how The Mash Report wasn’t very good. Nor was the article, granted, but still, when The Mash Report started, it was pretty dire. Since then, though, I’ve dipped in and out of the show, just in case it improved massively while I wasn’t looking and I could write an “I was wrong about The Mash Report” type article.

Not feeling the need to write that one just yet.

This Way Up (Channel 4)

I finished this at the tail end of August, but I liked it a lot and might not get the chance to say anything about it otherwise, so here it is anyway. I think, actually, if Fleabag didn’t exist, this would probably have a lot more acclaim? It’s difficult, obviously, to draw comparisons, and you don’t want to do that stupid thing the Guardian’s doing at the moment by comparing literally everything with a woman in it to Fleabag.

But! I do actually think there’s a bit of merit to the comparison in this case, if only because there’s a thematic similarity, in terms of how they deal with loneliness (Fleabag is hugely about loneliness and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise), and mental health, and so on. Actually, This Way Up is almost a little more specific, which I appreciated, contrasted with what Fleabag is inclined to leave implicit. It’s probably not unfair to say This Way Up owes a debt to Fleabag, but it’s a small one, I think, and probably more in terms of the slightly boring, commissioning angle, where the head of every channel is looking for the next Fleabag. But also, that kinda undercuts Aisling Bea, who is great, so I don’t really care for that line of thinking.

What I would say is that This Way Up is probably better at being a more – and this sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, I’m not – traditional, straightforward comedy. Fleabag, I’ve recently started to think, is a drama that’s taken on the shape and style of a comedy (in contrast to Succession, which is a comedy that’s taken on the shape and style of a drama – I’m wondering, actually, about genre as structure first and foremost, about a television language that’s been defined by relatively arbitrary strictures imposed onto the format, which is why a half-hour drama like, uhm, I’ve forgotten the one I was raving about a while back, but it’s why a half hour drama can suddenly feel like such an exciting and interesting thing, you know? Although I suspect part of that is also just a reaction against the sort of televisual manspreading, to steal a phrase, of prestige television, of Game of Thrones going on for hours and hours and hours – and Succession is actually working with that in a sort of meta sense, because it’s all about excess and opulence and disgusting wealth, so even though it’s obviously a comedy using the language and style and form of a prestige drama is how it heightens that)

That bracket got long enough that I thought I should start a new sentence. Anyway, what I was going to say is, This Way Up is dealing with similar themes to Fleabag while still being an actual comedy – Fleabag is, I might be inclined to argue, just (“just”, but you know what I mean) a very funny drama. I think finding a space for these ideas, finding a space for that subject matter, to handle it with sensitivity and levity all within the context of a sitcom, is actually arguably far more quietly revolutionary than the prestige dramedy of Fleabag.

(I definitely just did the thing I said I wasn’t going to do. Hmm.)

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