By Emma Parker
Logic and realism are often put aside in Sam Levinson’s maximalist television show, Euphoria (2019-present). The students attend a suburban high school dressed in Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs, listening to a soundtrack of Sinead O’Connor and a Sharon Cash cover. The rules of time continuity and the real world are abandoned. As the show follows Rue, an unreliable narrator both for her drug addiction and capriciousness, we enter her world through a dream-like, psychological lens that echoes ideas of Surrealism.
This post-war art movement founded by André Breton is characterized by the uncanny, subconscious, and poetic, often presenting a sense of the otherworldly that breaks away from convention and the constraints of the material world. The extra-plasticity of Surrealism moves the art out of an aesthetic concern, as well as one of functionality, finding a realm of purgatory between the two (Ades, 270). Euphoria, however, is certainly aesthetically driven, with an extreme manipulation of lighting, extraordinary costuming and make-up, and an incredibly skilled display of cinematography. Similarly, to Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, the technicality and quality of the visuals in the show work to create a concrete portrayal of a dream world, or in Rue’s case, one of insobriety and hallucination (Finkelstein, 262-272). Both Dalí and Levinson use their craft and skilled artistry to create a clear visual representation of something that is psychological and ephemeral. It is precisely because of the exceptional aesthetics created by the production team that Euphoria can break away from the bounds of realism and portray such an assemblage of fantasy and emotion.
The suspension of disbelief is extended, with Levinson asking the audience to buy into this parallel world of stylized debauchery and fantasia. Verisimilitude is not prioritized, and the creators of the show take free reign in piecing together a patchwork of influences spanning genres and decades through the eclectic coalescence of music, costuming, and intertextuality (Gray). Prada sandals are paired with Spandau Ballet and crypto currency is combined with vintage Jean Paul Gautier. While many of these details might seem “unrealistic” or farfetched in the context of a suburban high school drama, perhaps this kaleidoscope of culture is truly a testament to the globalization of the information age in which Gen Z have grown up (Sanger-Katz and Carrol).
While the genre of Euphoria embodies Surrealism, the series is often described as feeling incredibly real, with Levinson’s self-proclaimed “emotional realism” (Seitz). The show tackles ideas of drug abuse, sexuality, violence, and love, with each of these themes portrayed with an incredible sense of empathy and a finger on the pulse of what it is like to go through the complexities of adolescence. The realism that is written into the screenplay is paired with moments that reflect a social realist genre, with the show resembling the photographic work of Nan Goldin (Fig. 2 and 4) and the films of Andrea Arnold, both thematically and visually. There is a contrast between the unrealistic external world and the realistic internal world that creates a sense of Surrealism by constantly oscillating between a dream realm and a deeply rooted psychological space. Despite the countless fashion and makeup trends Euphoria has inspired and the “generation defining” production of the show, there is an inherent Surrealist quality that supersedes the real and the plastic by transcending into the mindscape, establishing the series in the Surrealist genre (Naahar).
The dreamworld is particularly pervasive in the second season with many fantasy montages that display the internal mental spaces of the characters. The episode “Out of Touch” (2.2) seamlessly integrates dream sequences of Nate and Cassie raising a family together in an idyllic suburban house as well as Kat’s fantasy of a Viking brutally murdering her then-boyfriend Ethan only to sexually “conquer” her. Each of these inner spaces are narrated by Rue, a detached nonpartisan who, in the world of Euphoria, can traverse the interiorities of each character with complete omniscience, only adding to the Surrealist effect.
In portraying a suburban high school, Sam Levinson has created an amalgamated fever dream that pieces together fantastic aesthetics with distorted time and an almost transparent psychological realm that firmly consecrates the series in Surrealism (Gray). The final episode of season two is titled “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned for a Thing I Cannot Name,” a quote from Mad Love, a seminal Surrealist text by André Breton. Levinson’s nod to the founder of the Surrealist movement is clear and profound, using his words to tie a poetic bow on the series in all its ideas of the uncanny, subconscious, and dreamscape. It is often claimed that Euphoria is a show about teenagers for adults (Rodriguez). Perhaps the experience of high school could only be accurate by portraying it with such Surrealism—a dream or exploration of the unconscious—as these experiences for the audience can only be reached through a jaunt into memory. We never really have a firm grasp on the timeline of our adolescent escapades and our memories of what took place are certainly sensationalized in emotion. Levinson gives us a fever dream of high school because once you’re on the other side of it, the memories are exactly that.
Nan and Brian in Bed (1983) by Nan Goldin
Amanda in the Mirror (1992) by Nan Goldin
Ades, D. (2021). “The Poetic Object.” Surrealism Beyond Borders. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) & Tate Modern (London, U.K.).
Breton, A. (1937, 1987). Mad Love. University of Nebraska Press.
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Finkelstein, H. (1998). The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. Cambridge, MA.
Gray, J. (2022). How ‘Euphoria’ Turned the Teen Drama Soundtrack into a Perfect Fever Dream. The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/tv/2022/2/25/22950110/euphoria-season-2-music-...
Gyarkye, L. (2022). Critic’s Notebook: ‘Euphoria’ Season 2 Finale Embraces the Series’ Messy, Surrealist Self. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-reviews/euphoria-season-2-finale...
Naahar, Rohan. (2019). Euphoria review: HBO’s new show is a generation-defining masterpiece. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/tv/euphoria-review-hbo-s-new-show-is-a-ge...
Rodgers, D. (2022). Why Euphoria’s costume designer said ‘fuck it’ to realistic fashion. Dazed Magazine. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/55640/1/heidi-bivens-euphor...
Rodriguez, A. (2019). HBO dives into fresh waters with ‘Euphoria,’ a depiction of modern teenage life that’s as gripping and gritty as ‘The Wire.’ Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/euphoria-hbo-is-speaking-more-directly-t...
Sanger-Katz, M and Aaron E. Carrol. (2019). The ‘Euphoria’ Teenagers Are Wild. But Most Real Teenagers Are Tame. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/23/upshot/euphoria-hbo-teens-sex-drugs.html
Seitz, M.Z. (2019). Why Euphoria Feels So Real, Even When It Isn’t Realistic. Vulture. https://www.vulture.com/2019/08/euphoria-sam-levinson-filmmaking-influen...
Shafer, E. (2022). ‘Euphoria’ Music Supervisor Jen Malone on Channeling Nostalgia with Needle Drops From 2Pac, INXS and Sinéad O’Connor. Variety. https://variety.com/2022/music/news/euphoria-music-supervisor-jen-malone...