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HBO’s crackling good ‘Euphoria’ a cautionary tale for teens, a horror show for parents

Zendaya stars in edgy, new show that depicts the sad origins and grim consequences of experiments with sex, drugs, violence.

Singer-actress Zendaya plays a world-weary 17-year-old in “Euphoria.”
Singer-actress Zendaya plays a world-weary 17-year-old in “Euphoria.”
HBO

Seventeen-year-old Rue has a way with words.

Born three days after 9/11, Rue was “once happy, content, sloshing around in my own private, primordial pool,” as she tells us in voiceover narration.

“Then, one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed, over and over, by the cruel cervix of my mother, Leslie. I put up a good fight, but I lost. The first time but … not the last …”

The singer-actress Zendaya — the former Disney Channel star who is MJ Jones in the latest “Spider-Man” movies — plays Rue in this edgy and shocking and sobering and crackling good new HBO limited series “Euphoria,” premiering Sunday.

And it is uncommonly strong, star-making work. Every inch of her performance feels authentic. Zendaya plays a character who is world-wise and world-weary — but still gets around town on her bicycle and dresses like a kid.

Rue tells us from the get-go she’s not the most reliable narrator, and she often behaves like an absolute little s--- as she lies to her mother and lets down her little sister and manipulates others. But there’s also something warm and funny and good about this girl.

She’s not a lost cause. Now, if only she could believe that herself.

Filled with graphic nudity, teenage sexuality, drinking and drug use, “Euphoria” is guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of many a parent of adolescents and teens and will likely have some decrying it for exploiting and glamorizing the aforementioned subjects. (Remember the Parents Television Council? It has issued an “urgent warning” about the show without having actually seen it.)

There are scenes in which Rue and other high school-age characters engage in heavy drug use, commit acts of horrific violence, send nude pics and provocative texts or get involved in some deadly serious circumstances.

When the cast is this attractive, and the cinematography is this slick and cool, and the music is this catchy, there’s a danger of making it all seem so enticing.

But trust me, “Euphoria” is hardly an irresponsible advertisement for Teens Gone Wild. Time and again, we see the consequences of addiction — and with just about every main character, we learn hard truths about their childhoods and realize we shouldn’t be so quick to judge their actions now, given what they’ve been through.

I’ve seen four of the eight episodes. Each begins with a backstory about one of the main characters, focusing on events when they were 11 years old.

We learn about the complicated and twisted dynamic between the handsome, hot-tempered football jock and his father, a successful businessman with a deeply warped secret life.

We see how an overweight adolescent girl became something of an online sensation — but nobody in her real life knew anything about it.

We find out about a traumatic moment in the life of a trans girl, whose mother responded to her child’s search for identity by institutionalizing her.

And Rue tells us that, when she was 11, she had a panic attack and was rushed to the hospital, and they put her on liquid Valium, and she recalls thinking, “This is the feeling I’ve been searching for all my life.”

Based on an Israeli series and adapted by Sam Levinson (son of Barry Levinson of “Diner” and “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog” fame), “Euphoria” is filled with stylistic touches.

It rains a LOT. The interiors of the middle-class suburban homes are all about tones of reds and browns and golds and have thick carpeting and wooden railings straight out of the 1980s. The party sequences are bathed in electric blues and purples and pinks. At times, we hear EDM pulsating on the soundtrack. Then, there’s the moment when Air Supply’s mush-pop anthem “Even the Nights Are Better” plays as a counterpoint to a scene of “American Psycho”-type violence.

There’s also a sprinkling of dark humor. When a new student introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Ethan,” the first response is, “Please don’t be a mass shooter.”

The loving but complicated friendship between Rue and Jules, a trans girl who has recently moved to town, is the emotional center of the story. (The transgender model/actress Hunter Schafer delivers strong, touching, empathetic work as Jules.)

And crazy as it sounds, there’s also something moving about how the drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) is torn about selling to Rue because he genuinely cares about her fate.

By the end of episode 4, some of the parallel storylines in “Euphoria” begin to cross paths, sometimes in stunning fashion. If the second half of this story is as compelling as the first, this will end up being one of the best series of the year.