Years ago, the likes of My So-Called Life, The OC and Dawson’s Creek were derided by older TV audiences for being a bit too smart for their own good; namely, having kids who acted and talked too much like adults. Well, imagine what those audience members would make of the current crop of teen dramas.
Unrequited crushes and bad dye jobs have been done away with and replaced with some seriously hard-hitting issues.
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First, we had Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why in 2017, which was a visceral deep-dive into mental health and suicide. After a furore erupted when a graphic suicide scene was included in the first series, the show’s makers eventually removed the scene, but not before it was revealed that researchers found a reported 13.3pc increase in suicide rates in the US.
Sex Education, also on Netflix, was a different change of pace, though featured no shortage of secondary school-age characters having plenty of sex.
The series focused on a sex therapist’s son offering X-rated advice to his horny classmates. Still, the show was critically lauded, with many noting that, in the main, Sex Education got it right about the teenage experience of sex and relationships. And now there’s HBO’s latest teen offering, Euphoria. Historically, HBO – the home of Game Of Thrones, Sex & The City and Girls – have never shied away from controversy or sex. But Euphoria has given even the most ardent TV fans pause for thought.
Billed on HBO’s website as following “a group of high-school students as they navigate love and friendships in a world of drugs, sex, trauma, and social media”, Euphoria has garnered major attention for its ultra-realistic depiction of teenage sex.
Many commentators in its native US are fretting about how full-on its sex content might be for its young audience. Now, such concerns are as old as the proverbial hills: older generations have always had their ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ moments.
Back in 1995, Larry Clark’s Kids featured plenty of teenage sex scenes, drug taking and, in a disturbing climax, the rape of a comatose teenager, Jenny (played by Chloe Sevigny).
In its pursuit of teenage veracity, Skins was pretty salty as far back as 2007, and had no shortage of sex-related or drug-fuelled storylines. And if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that teen drama has long been a fertile ground for approaching difficult issues: there have been affairs with married men (Gilmore Girls), affairs with teachers (Dawson’s Creek), hit and runs (Beverley Hills 90210), non-consensual sex (Gossip Girl).
But in this instance, the concerns of older audience members for young fans might well be justified.
In an article headlined ‘How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much?’, the Hollywood Reporter observed that one episode saw “close to 30 penises flash onscreen”, while another featured a scene in which one character “commits statutory rape with a 17-year-old trans girl”.
Elsewhere, there are drug-fuelled sex sessions, erotic asphyxiation, hook-up apps, assault, and sexting throughout the series.
Disney sensation Zendaya is the star of the series, in what has been described as the most deliberate ‘take me seriously’ career move since Miley Cyrus starred in Black Mirror.
Zendaya plays a troubled fresh-from-rehab high schooler named Rue, who calls on her semi-estranged childhood friend, Lexi (played by Maude Apatow) to give her some clean urine so Rue can beat her worried mother’s drug test.
“It’s a good insight into how hard it is to grow up in this time,” Apatow (21) has reasoned.
And as you might expect, such shock tactics have proven a huge draw: in the US, HBO enjoyed a million-strong audience for its premiere, and the show was the number three worldwide topic trending on Twitter after its premiere. It was originally scheduled to appear on Sky Atlantic here in the autumn, but the network brought the broadcast forward and now it airs on August 6.
HBO’s president of programming refuted accusations of sensationalism, noting that the plot lines of Euphoria – a remake of a hugely popular Israeli series – are inspired by the real-life experiences of creator Sam Levinson.
“It may seem boundary-pushing, and the idea of putting them on TV may be, but somebody lived them,” he says.
Parenting psychotherapist Joanna Fortune notes that for the current generation of teenagers and pre-teens, sex might well look different than it did for previous generations, not least because many of them carry around any amount of sexual imagery in their back pocket, on their iPhones.
“I’m aware that teenagers have a different entry point to sex now and by 16, it becomes a bit ‘been there, done that’,” she observes. “It’s not risky, it’s not exciting. They’re exposed to so much more and it can cause a sort of premature fatigue.”
Fortune notes that teens have long been drawn to dark dramas. “Let’s be honest, TV for teenagers has gotten so much darker in the last 10 years, but there’s also a situation where teen dramas are being watched by adults, so my inference is that a show like Euphoria is attempting to bridge the adolescent and adult markets.”
There’s something in the make-up of a teenager’s brain, observes Fortune, that responds particularly well to the tropes in these shows.
“Developmentally, the teenage brain is being rewired, and they’re moving towards risk-taking and impulsive behaviours, and that will compel and lure teenagers towards high-adrenaline, high-drama shows.
“In Euphoria, you’ll find the pace is pretty hectic, with no real space to assimilate each plot. It’s sort of like information overdosing,” she adds.
“Teenagers’ default position is drama and it can be calm, then tantrum, then back to calm. The trends of this dark teen TV feeds right into that.”
Far from being shocking, Fortune notes that much of what we see in teen dramas has become normalised.
“You and I know, for instance, that these shows contain actors in their early 20s playing teenagers, but that’s not necessarily apparent to a teenager,” she says. “The problem isn’t with the scenes, it’s when this stuff is accepted as normal teenage behaviour.”
Yet Fortune suggests to parents that it could be a way to broach burning topics.
“They’ll see it whether you want them to or not, but I tell parents to insert themselves into the world of their teenager. Be curious, not intrusive, which can be a fine line to tread.
“Sit with them, or watch it yourself, and be prepared to be shocked. Say to your child, ‘that was a lot for me, can we talk about what that was about? It would really help me to talk this through’.
“But really, we have to give teenagers more credit than they usually get. These show makers need to remember that we don’t need to see every detail spelled out to understand what’s going on. To do so is really disrespectful to a teenager’s intelligence.”
Euphoria is on Sky Atlantic from August 6, at 10pm.
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