'Euphoria' and 'Trinkets' join crowded class of TV teens in trouble

Posted June 14, 2019 9:23 a.m. EDT

— There's no faster shortcut to "edginess" than pushing the envelope in depicting teenagers engaging in sex and drug use, usually in a way designed to give parents nightmares. Bringing something fresh to the formula is another matter -- especially when the class is so crowded -- for new series in separate wastelands: HBO's "Euphoria," starring Zendaya, and Netflix's "Trinkets."

"Euphoria" takes the "teenage wasteland" concept to extremes, focusing on Zendaya's Rue, a young addict, and her equally troubled circle of friends. Beyond plenty of drug abuse, the youths are depicted in an assortment of sex acts -- with peers and adults -- through the first four episodes previewed.

Many of those scenes are jarringly explicit, including as much male nudity as TV will allow. If there's a major new wrinkle here, it's the ubiquity of pornography, cellphones and texting, so much so that the narrative unfolds under the noses of the mostly overwhelmed (when not utterly creepy) parents in the show, who are about as effective as those in the old Charlie Brown cartoons.

Heavily narrated by Rue in flat, exhausted tones, the show explores the various challenges raised by having overdosed, including where one obtains clean urine for a drug test, finding dealers you can trust and the people you encounter at rehab. "Did you meet any cute guys there?" Rue is asked.

The excesses aren't limited to sex, with several scenes that are disturbing and violent. There is even a hallucinatory dancing-on-the-ceiling sequence, although not in a way that will remind anyone of Fred Astaire.

"Euphoria" is raw, visceral and sure to be controversial. The main problem is the "why" of it all, other than probing the parameters of how far the producers can push into this terrain.

In that respect, it's merely the latest effort calibrated to trigger such a debate, from Larry Clark's gritty movie "Kids" in the mid-1990s to the British series "Skins" in 2007, which MTV transformed into a US version a few years later.

That last series -- which featured several actors who were still minors -- was decried as tantamount to child pornography by conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council, which is also sounding alarms about "Euphoria." (Zendaya and most of her co-stars are actually 20-something adults playing teens, which makes that less of an issue and yet, in the liberties taken, more of one.)

Compared to "Euphoria," "Trinkets" -- based on a young-adult novel by Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith -- is considerably more tame but still plenty bleak, focusing on a trio of teenage girls who meet at Shoplifter's Anonymous.

The central character is Elodie (Brianna Hildebrand from the "Deadpool" movies), who wanders through life with a confused, surly attitude that's especially prevalent in TV and movie takes on adolescence. Other than a predilection for petty theft, Elodie and her new friends (Kiana Madeira, Quintessa Swindell) ostensibly don't have much in common, but bonds form over the course of the half-hour episodes.

If there are common threads between the shows, it's the sense these kids are confused and pained, and their parents don't have much of a clue about what's happening. Or to quote the song, same as it ever was.

Much has been made recently of the disappointing box-office performance for the movie "Booksmart," despite critical and celebrity accolades for actress Olivia Wilde's directorial debut.

But one of the overlooked challenges for such movies is the abundance of such fare, especially on television and streaming, where programs like Netflix's "Sex Education" and "13 Reasons Why" consume a whole lot of oxygen, while essentially occupying the same lane that was once the exclusive province of independent film.

Given that, it takes a lot for movies -- even a small gem like "Eighth Grade," which garnered major accolades last year for writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher -- to carve out space.

"I know you're not allowed to say it, but drugs are kinda cool," Rue says in a later episode, "before they wreck your skin, and your life."

The saturation of troubled teens in movies and TV isn't quite so dramatic, but when they arrive in bunches -- mucking up the environment for the best of them -- it's hard not to share Rue's sense of fatigue.

"Euphoria" premieres June 16 at 10 p.m. on HBO. CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.

"Trinkets" premieres June 14 on Netflix.