Zendaya helps give HBO’s “Euphoria” its edge

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While singer Zendaya is another “graduate” from the Disney Channel, her career trajectory that includes a lead role on HBO’s “Euphoria” is anything but common.

Zendaya is known for a number of contemporary pop, r&b hits. For example, songs such as “Swag It Out” and “Replay.” Although she is 22, the singer makes a believable teenager. With coltish limbs and a shock of unruly hair, Zendaya’s Rue convinces audiences of her addiction.

“Euphoria” attempts to show the seedier side of contemporary teenage life. While some critics have noted that it is too seedy, especially since the New York Times has reported that the collective activities that comprise teen debauchery have declined in recent years, the portrayals seem real.

Maybe the shocking scenes in the show are there for the over-40 crowd who might not have been shocked by teenage behavior since the movie “Kids” (1995). “Euphoria” stuns on its own terms and it has a way of riveting audiences so that they keep tuning in.

Zendaya as Rue in “Euphoria”

Even if it takes a person a few episodes to figure out the entire cast, Rue shines in her casually rebellious way. When viewers meet her, Rue is fresh out of rehab, but she seems anything but rehabilitated. Yet, on some level, she is interesting, if not likable, and audiences might find themselves sort of cheering for her when she does morally questionable things like cheat on an at-home drug test.

The scenes in which Rue argues with her mother seem standard, until Rue’s younger sister is mentioned. It was the sister who found Rue after the overdose that prompted the trip to rehab. The scene, one of “Euphoria’s” in-your-face moments, was unexpected and stark.

As expected, not everyone is a fan of this show. Critics have questioned its “Fight Club”-style narration, and parents’ groups have decried its content: the show does not shy away from nudity, drug use and potential death, and general violence. Further, still other critics point at the growing list of television shows and movies that have attempted to illustrate the dark side of teenage life. Among those titles, are “Thirteen,” “Gossip Girl,” the aforementioned “Kids,” all of which, at the time of their release had an edge to them because they were hailed as some sort of insider look into the world of teenagers.

What the popularity of “Euphoria” bears out is that audiences rarely tire of bleak, teenage stories. Part of the reason that the shows and movies “feel” new, even if they aren’t is that each generation of teens faces its own challenges, and each generation of parents and teachers struggles to understand.

By seeming to aim the storylines and narration directly at middle-aged viewers, “Euphoria” acknowledges that its audience might be unfamiliar with contemporary teenage life, even if they have seen something like it before.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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