‘Euphoria’ Leans on Flair and Lets Down Its Lead in New Special: TV Review

In its first season, “Euphoria” was a lightning bolt.

The HBO series, crackling with oddity and possibility, generated noise and light in a manner that felt new, and overdue. The show told stories about the TikTok generation with all the emotional excess that comes with actually being a teen. And in Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, it put forward two massively charismatic and gifted performers — the first a familiar face allowed to graduate to a new level of acting achievement, the second a brand-new star. The TV landscape has been a little dimmer without them since “Euphoria’s” first season ended in August 2019.

Evidently, show creator Sam Levinson missed these actors and their characters too. This weekend sees the launch of the second of two off-season specials on HBO after a preview on HBO Max. The first of these dealt with Rue (Zendaya), an addict in tentative recovery, meeting with her sponsor following her relapse and discussing what lies ahead for her. The new one shifts focus to Jules (Schafer) in a therapy session reflecting on the events of the recent past.

This difference is part of why the first “Euphoria” special was a qualified success and the new one, entitled “Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” unfortunately is not. This episode spends a great deal of time re-tilling familiar ground, running through old story with a degree of style and flair that feels applied to hide that there’s not much new here. A sequence early in the episode is telling. We see a close-up of Schafer’s eye as Jules looks through old images of her relationship with Rue; they’re reflected in her iris, toggling rapidly by, as Lorde’s wrenching, emotionally-broad anthem “Liability” plays almost in full.

Sad things are sad, and this is sad, too. But it’s an easy shorthand for a big emotional catharsis — pairing a facile recap of past events with both melodramatic style and a song from the album “Melodrama” — that feels somewhere short of what Levinson, as a director, has shown himself capable of achieving. It’s padding for an episode with not quite enough on its mind to justify bringing the band back together.

That this ends up the takeaway seems impossible at other points in the episode. Much time, for instance, is spent in a therapy session between Jules and a character played by Lauren Weedman. There, Jules brings up, and occasionally backs away from, big and important concepts on her mind, including flirting with the idea of taking herself off hormone replacement therapy as a way of, potentially, stepping away from a version of herself that she now sees as constructed for male pleasure. This raises in frank terms questions that a potential second season might answer well, and Schafer is across-the-board terrific. (Therapy scenes are not easy, and Jules’s diffidence, defiance, and exploration of possibility flicker across Schafer in intriguing counterpoint.)

But the direction by Levinson has the tendency to let the script, by Levinson and Schafer together, down. The Rue special, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” was rooted in a single conversation and was all the more effective for that. Here, instead, cutaways to flashbacks diminish what’s happening in the room, simultaneously over-explaining and attempting to position that over-explaining as something more artful. Flashbacks are shot so artistically as to obscure what they’re depicting for a few seconds. When Jules speaks to her father about the sad case of her mother (an addict in recovery like Rue), the music is so dominant in the mix that it’s hard to make out what Jules is saying — a victory for mood over meaning.

What was charming in a full season of the show, where information was parceled out sparingly over time, comes to feel excruciating in an hourlong sit that plainly wants to get somewhere but dithers too long getting there. The revelation, for instance, that Jules remains in love with a fake account from the internet is diminished by the endless shots of her fantasies of real-world sex with a man who never existed. It’s a crystalline character detail, amid much retelling of Season 1, that Levinson ends up sensationalizing past the point of sense; we lose Jules in favor of an exclamation point. As a therapy subject, Jules is evasive. But it’d have been possible for this episode centering her to mirror that trait without doing so much to push us away.

This is disappointing. Schafer is a natural performer whose point of view on Jules has, through the run of “Euphoria,” seemed to be guiding the character. (Not for nothing, after all, did she end up a co-writer here.) But she, like Jules, seems lost even within this supposed showcase episode. The episode that opens with her tearful eye closes on a moment of catharsis (the impetus for which I will not spoil) in Jules’ bedroom. She’s weeping for what she’s lost, and what lies ahead. Having brought his actor to this point, Levinson shoots her through a rain-streaked window and begins a long zoom out, ultimately obscuring Schafer, muting her, and shrinking her to a small parcel of the shot. It’s a moment whose emphasis on flair over the more interesting things happening in frame says nothing good about a show where grandeur has always been the point. The personal and the real — the things great actors bring — ultimately cannot compete with an episode of TV in love with the idea of itself.

“Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob” airs Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. E.T.

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