TV

Doom-watching ‘Euphoria’

“You’re just anxious for an hour straight."

Sydney Sweeney as Cassie in the second season of "Euphoria." Eddy Chen/HBO


Every Sunday night, Maddie Bone and her five roommates, all in their 20s and 30s, dim the lights in their New York City apartment, fire up the projector and turn on HBO Max — with subtitles, just in case the J train rattles by. They also brew a pot of Sleepytime tea, not to help them drift off but to keep their nerves at bay while they watch the heart-racing fever dream that is “Euphoria.”

“We choose not to drink during it,” Bone, 26, said. “You need something that deeply relaxes you.”

After all, rare are the moments of peace in the show, a daring ensemble drama about teenagers pushing the limits in a Southern California suburb. Most episodes include some mix of bad sex, graphic violence, gratuitous nudity, copious consumption of drugs and alcohol, and unsparing depictions of addiction. For the viewer, feeling stressed, anxious or restless while watching comes with the territory.

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“I think there is a lot of stress/anxiety that goes hand in hand with watching ‘Euphoria,’ ” Adhya Hoskote, a 20-year-old from San Jose, California, wrote in a direct message on Instagram. “Personally I know my anxiety is not the same as those who have had firsthand experience with addiction or friends or family struggling with addiction, but it can be hard to watch at times.”

Hoskote said she has to take breaks while watching. But like the millions of other people who keep up with the show, she always comes back.

The show, written and produced by Sam Levinson, presents a stylized portrayal of young people in the throes of addiction, grief and betrayal. Every storyline is its own miniature trauma plot.

Zendaya, the show’s star and one of its executive producers, issued a content warning ahead of the Season 2 premiere: “This season, maybe even more so than the last, is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Please only watch if you feel comfortable.”

Viewers have also noted the intensity of this season.

“You’re just anxious for an hour straight,” said Merna Ahmed, 21. “When you’re watching a horror movie or listening to something that’s super high adrenaline, you keep listening because you want to know what’s going to happen. You just can’t look away.”

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This season’s sixth episode, which aired on Feb. 13, drew 5.1 million viewers, according to HBO, despite premiering during the Super Bowl (which had an audience of 112.3 million).

“Euphoria” follows in the footsteps of teen dramas like “The O.C.,” “Skins” and “Degrassi” (the cast of which included a young Drake, who is now an executive producer on “Euphoria”) in its approach to coming of age. But “Euphoria” has stood out for its willingness to push to extremes alongside its aesthetically pleasing imagery.

We look on as Zendaya’s character, Rue, relapses and collapses into her addiction to opiates, torching bridges with people she claims to love and physically destroying her home. We watch as robberies take place, guns are cocked and drivers speed haphazardly while taking swigs from beer bottles.

If that sounds unpleasant — agonizing even — it hasn’t stopped people from tuning in.

Ahmed, who lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey, keeps up with “Euphoria” for social reasons; she loves discussing the drama with her friends and seeing memes about the show on Twitter. But she is also holding out hope that the characters, even those in the deepest trenches, will eventually be redeemed.

“I was thinking about why we keep watching when it’s so agonizing. For me, at least, I think it’s because you want to see these characters reach redemption,” she said. “You want to see where it ends up for them and root for them.”

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Philip Cadoux, 23, who watches with friends every week, loves the show’s colors, costumes and acting. He is also pulled in by empathy, as he knows people who have struggled with addiction.

“It’s like an intense dramatization of things we all experience. They’re very relatable characters, but the things that they go through are just amped up to an 11,” said Cadoux, who lives in New York City. “I don’t relate to Rue, but I relate to her sister or mother.”

Apart from the aesthetics and award-winning acting, mental health professionals agree that the show can be relatable.

“There is a parallel process between the characters they’re watching onscreen and viewers’ own willingness and ability to adapt to the pandemic,” Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist in New York, wrote in an email. “Viewers are watching various stories unfold that center on the question: Would you do whatever is necessary to get what you want?”

She also attributes the show’s success to a phenomenon she calls “doom-watching,” a cousin of doomscrolling, consuming bad news ever-present via our phones. While “doom-watching,” people watch intense shows that feed off their own anxieties, especially at night when other distractions might not be as readily available. She sees it as a method of projection, specifically “projecting the personal fears and stressors of oneself to the collective group or external and fictionalized television characters.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Romanoff also believes the show can serve as a vehicle for education and understanding.

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“The show does a good job at showcasing mental health, addiction struggles and how people address this through self-medication,” she wrote. “The show has important implications when it comes to increasing awareness and empathy for addiction, mental health, sexuality and relationships. It encourages important conversations and self-reflection.”

Mary Kay Holmes, a 46-year-old writer and parent of two teenagers, taps into that school of thought. Every week, she watches the show alongside her 17-year-old daughter (her 15-year-old opts to watch it alone, finding it “cringe” to watch with parents).

Holmes and her daughter both enjoy the show as a source of entertainment first and foremost (she’d be watching it even if she didn’t have kids), but as a mother, she often utilizes “Euphoria” to have informal conversations with her children about drug use, relationships, toxic masculinity, gender and sexuality.

“It’s a hard show to watch, but there’s a lot of good stuff that comes up,” Holmes said. “I think in my house, we’ve used television a lot to bring up conversations and talk about things, and I know that’s probably not the norm for a lot of families, but I try to keep up with what my kids are consuming, as opposed to restricting it.”

But the main reason most viewers seem to return is that the show holds their attention, thanks to its eye-catching fashion and makeup, its stunning visuals, and the twists and turns that keep people talking.

“I definitely watch it for the drama. I don’t have a lot of drama in my life right now because I work from home, and I’m pretty emotionally solid right now,” Bone said. “However, I love to be able to hash out some of the plot lines with co-workers, friends, passers-by, someone I meet at the bodega. It’s these things that we can really latch on to.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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