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‘Euphoria’: Searing Season 2 demands, deserves your attention

Zendaya’s character is just one of the teens having a showcase moment of despair on HBO’s brilliant, brutally raw series.

Rue (Zendaya) is back on drugs in Season 2 of “Euphoria.
HBO

“I don’t know if I’m a good person.” – Sentiment expressed by more than one main character in “Euphoria” Season 2.

You best bring your A-viewing game when you strap it in for another season of the searing and brutally raw “Euphoria” on HBO, because if you let your attentions wander you’re liable to miss out on the details of something spectacularly bold and original, whether it’s a Scorsese-esque flashback origin story, the introduction of some immediately fascinating new characters, a number of callbacks to particularly poignant songs by INXS or the moment when most of the main characters in the story find themselves essentially watching a thinly disguised depiction of their own lives — and that’s just a smattering of the darkly funny, emotionally draining, drug-infused elements in this wild and unforgettable ride.

Shew! As was the case with Season One (and the two interstitial special episodes) of Sam Levinson’s brilliant adaptation of the Israeli TV series of the same name, Season Two of “Euphoria” is the polar opposite of a comfort-viewing show, e.g., “Cobra Kai” or “Emily in Paris” and “Ted Lasso,” where you just sit back and enjoy the familiar warmness of it all. This is more in the league of “Ozark” and “Yellowjackets” and “Squid Game,” in which we’re equal parts exhausted and exhilarated by the viewing experience — and we wonder how much more some of these characters can take before there’s going to be another explosion, physically and/or emotionally.

And oh, do the fireworks fly in Season 2, with Zendaya reprising her Emmy-winning role as Rue Bennett, a 17-year-old recovering drug addict who looks like a kid in her maroon hoodie sweatshirt and Converse sneaks while she bicycles around her unspecified California town, but has already been through enough setbacks and challenges and upheavals to fill a lifetime. On this season, at least a half-dozen major players, including Rue, will have showcase moments when the soul-crushing reality of their lives becomes too much to bear and they let loose with every fiber of their being — moments brought to harrowing realism thanks to the rich and vibrant writing, and stellar performances by Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Sydney Sweeney, Eric Dane, Storm Reid, Colman Domingo and Nika King, among others.

Sunday’s season premiere flashes back to the younger days of Fezco (Angus Cloud).
HBO

Premiering Sunday on HBO and numbering eight episodes in all (I’ve seen the first seven), “Euphoria” Season 2 kicks off with a flashback to the very early days of Angus Cloud’s Fezco, who despite being a drug dealer capable of shocking violence is somehow one of the more sympathetic, dare we say likable characters in the series. Filmed in the style of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” complete with the inclusion of Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” (which was put to such memorable use in that film), it’s an incredible quick-dive into Fezco’s upbringing at the gnarly hands of his crazy-ass, drug-dealing grandmother, and we also learn how Fez’s de facto little brother “Ashtray” (played by with deadpan skill by Javon Walton in present-day) came to live with him.

A later episode fleshes out the high school years of Eric Dane’s Cal Jacobs, the monstrous and duplicitous father of Nate (Jacob Elordi), a rotten apple who has fallen at the very base of the poisonous tree, and we also get flashbacks to previous moments in the lives of some of the teenage characters, and it all adds context and dimension to the overall picture. Still, “Euphoria” is at its most compelling when we’re following the intense, day-to-day madness in the lives of Rue, who is once again using drugs, mainly opiates, and her on-and-off again love interest Jules (the amazing Hunter Schafer); a twisted love triangle involving Nate, Maddy (Alexa Demie) and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), and the budding relationship between Fezco and Cassie’s little sister Lexi (Maude Apatow), who is the closest thing to a well-adjusted teenager in this series but is beginning to emerge from her shell and proves to be a creative force in more ways than one.

Brimming with first-rate production design (every teenager’s bedroom, every wealthy family’s home, every seedy apartment, every dark alley has a hyper-realistic feel) and with stylish camerawork adding to the sometimes hallucinogenic nature to the proceedings, “Euphoria” employs the effective technique of having Rue narrate the story — although Rue the Narrator usually has a much more lucid, sober overview than Rue the Troubled Teenager. The pop culture references are fast and furious, from the use of songs such as Gershwin’s “Summertime” and to Bobby Darin’s version of “More” to an extended reference to the musical “Oklahoma!” to a key moment involving the movie “Stand by Me” to a heavy influx of 1970s and 1980s hits such as “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “It Never Rains in California,” “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” and “What a Fool Believes.” (When Rue has arguably the most horrific relapse of her life, what ensues feels like a cross between Scorsese’s “After Hours” and the surreal late 1960s film “The Swimmer.” It’s bat-bleep crazy and it perfectly captures Rue’s hopeless, perhaps even suicidal state of mind.)

Blazing with creativity and screen-popping visuals, “Euphoria” is a crackling live wire of a series with frightening and chilling insights into the world of far too many teenagers — and their parents — whose lives are in danger of being swallowed up by addiction-fueled actions. The consequences are lasting and perhaps even fatal.