“Yes folks, this isn’t any cheap X-rated movie or any 5th rate porno play, this is the show you want! Lady Divine’s cavalcade of perversions, the sleaziest show on Earth!…These assorted sluts, fags, dykes, pimps know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!” As I’m sure you know, dearest Filthy Dreams denizens of perversions, this batshit carnival barker, beckoning both unwilling and luridly indecent gawkers into a flood tide of filth derives from John Waters’s early grotesquerie Multiple Maniacs. But, given the right trash lens, it could also describe the band of teenage delinquents cavorting through HBO’s Euphoria.
From taking videos for foot fetishists to swallowing goldfish whole at a frat initiation to lessons in dick pics featuring Charles Manson speaking in tongues in court (the different between horrifying and terrifying dick pics) and literal child drug dealers with face tattoos who assert “I don’t fuck with human trafficking” (me neither, kid), Euphoria, through its eight episodes, seems to depict the newest generation of the filthiest people alive. Those kids are not alright!
And I know. I know. Written and created by Sam Levinson and based on an Israeli television show, Euphoria isn’t supposed to be trash. In fact, it’s meant to be quite serious, critically lauded for its depiction of addiction, sexuality, social media nightmares, and mental health. The show follows Rue, played in pill-hazed perfection by Zendaya, who is a 17-year-old drug addict navigating high school. The show is told through her narration, giving insight into a small cast of her classmates. Much of the show’s praise revolves around Rue’s friendship and romance with Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new girl who dresses like she’s Michael Alig going to Limelight in 1992. Certainly, a lot of the kudos is well deserved since Jules who, like Schafer, is trans, but the plot doesn’t revolve around her trans-ness like a cringe-worthy after-school special as with so many other depictions of trans characters.
Overall, though, the series seems to want to telegraph a moralizing message about the utter precariousness into which Generation Z was born, raised, and now exist. Born into a post-September 11 world, Generation Z grew up with the fragility of American life, shattered by terrorists, mass shooters, Wall Street greed pigs, and a con man president. And with revenge porn to violent deaths just a click away on the Internet, Generation Z is, if the show is any indication, not okay. And the kids aren’t the only ones who are walking trainwrecks. So are the parents, including Eric Dane as an underaged kid-cruising dad, and a wine mom played by Alanna Ubach, best known previously for this classic scene in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia:
Now, despite its lofty goals, much of Euphoria’s plot is fairly conventional, even veering into John Hughes territory with quarterback sociopath Nate (Jacob Elordi). Wow! A football-playing psychopath isn’t exactly breaking new ground in works on high school. However, what is striking about the show is its representation of depraved teenage sexuality, which has been criticized publicly for the sheer amount of dicks and full-frontal nudity in the show. But more than just penis-overload, the show portrays such an over-the-top camp version of sexuality, and does so with such an unhinged zeal that it perhaps inadvertently exemplifies the apparent ubiquity of John Waters’s trademark shock value aesthetics.
Now, I should preface I don’t think this was the show’s intent at all. Like The Perfection, I believe the showrunners wanted to create an indictment of our culture and its effect on this generation of kids. Euphoria has been compared to other generation-defining films like Less Than Zero or Kids, films, which also pushed the boundaries of drug-taking and sexual cavorting. But, Euphoria even goes beyond these films to become, instead, an excessive filth farce akin to John Waters’s early films.
Don’t believe me? Take the show’s third episode entitled “Made You Look,” which begins, like all the episodes, with a singular focus on one of the students. In this case, it’s Kat Hernandez, my personal favorite character performed exquisitely by Barbie Ferriera. The fat goth friend I always wanted, the episode starts with an explanation, narrated in a deadpan drawl by Rue, of how Kat gained weight suddenly by drinking one–or really 72 to be exact–too many virgin pina coladas. You do you, Kat! The rest of her backstory involves her alter ego as “one of the most prolific smut writers on Tumblr,” writing NC-17 fan fiction including one notable magnum opus “The First Night” about One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. As a writer, I’ll admit, Kat has some talent. I never heard of a blowjob described as sucking “cock with torturous finesse.” If her words weren’t enough, the dramatic reading of Kat’s masterpiece comes with Sailor Moon-esque animations of the fantastical pop star fellatio. Ah…romance!
But, that’s not even the best part of this episode. After a video of Kat losing her virginity gets uploaded to a porn site, she realizes that she could cash in on this opportunity rather than wallowing in shame. So she starts camming, twerking in her bedroom in lingerie and a fuzzy cat mask. Eventually, she gains a particularly dedicated follower, or her “cash pig,” with whom she Skypes. Appearing in white undershirt and matching briefs, he admits, “I’m kind of an odd duck…I got some extreme kinks.” That’s certainly true, as he reveals his teeny tiny micro-penis (Just think: someone auditioned for this role). Yearning for Kat to humiliate him, he strokes it while prompting: “Tell me I’m a loser…Tell me I’m a pathetic loser with a baby dick.” Eventually Kat exclaims, “You’re literally going to make me throw up.” And you know what? Same.
The entire scene, if delivered with a more ironic tone, could be straight out of a midnight movie. In fact, in its depiction of sex work, it reminds me Lydia Lunch’s phone sex operator in Richard Kern’s Cinema of Transgression masterpiece Fingered. Now, there has been some pearl-clutching and finger-wagging related to the representation of sex work and the issue with Kat being underage (she’s 16). I’ll only say that teenage sexuality is a reality, and one that Kat obviously finds empowering as a means for her to accept her body as sensual and beautiful.
But in addition, it’s just a scene of pure ecstatic and lurid trash, even though I presume we were meant to take a larger point from it. And that’s what I love about this new era of wannabe prestige TV. While shows such as Euphoria or the kitsch-laden The Act very clearly want to be landmark shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, instead, they’re just hysterical trash messes. They don’t quite land their intended critiques, but thank god, at least for me, it makes them much more enjoyable. As The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert writes on Euphoria, “But it’s also the kind of drama so relentlessly provocative—images of erect penises crop up with the persistence and frequency of weeds in springtime—that it prompts a question: Who is this supposed to be for?”
Me. It’s for me. And other lovers of filth. In fact, watching Euphoria, I couldn’t help but wonder if more than a statement on Generation Z, it showed what happens when John Waters’s trash aesthetic goes mainstream. As John himself notes in the first chapter of Mr. Know-It-All, he’s become accepted, and just this week he received yet another honorary award this time during the Locarno Film Festival. I’m sure many things can account for the eventual widespread acceptance of John Waters and his cavalcade of perversions, but one glaring reason is that the shocking worlds created in his films have become our own. I mean, what is more unhinged and debased than President Donald Trump (which in itself is still a shocker) groping a bride while crashing a wedding at his tacky Bedminster?
In John Waters, An Appreciation, Everett Lewis explains, “When Mr. Waters began his life’s work, his views were not those of the mainstream. That was the point. But a very strange thing has happened during the course of Mr. Waters’ career. The mainstream has changed. It has begun to mirror the world of Mr. Waters.” This was written in 2011, and in the intervening years, we have only become trashier and trashier. Lewis’s essay goes on to question the continued impact of John’s ability to shock when the mainstream has become his mirror image. He observes, “The only problem is, now that was have become Mr. Waters’ world (or his has become ours), and since his work has thrived on opposition, then where will his work go? How can he shock us if we have become shocking? If the boundaries between the ‘respectable’ world and the ‘outlaw’ world of his youth have merged and thus disappeared as he and his work have matured? (Reality TV, all those Housewives, it’s alike a John Waters movie, only not as good) If we are him, then what is he going to do to us now?”
But, for me the bigger question remains: What happens to the mainstream if it has become molded in John Waters’s image? Euphoria, that’s what happens. Scenes that are intended as realistic have the effect of being so overblown that they rise to the level of trash cinema, unintentionally. Take, for instance, the entire fair-centric fourth episode “Shook Ones II.” Between the pretzel stand selling molly and Maddy (Alexa Demie) wearing an onesie nearly identical to the one Cookie Mueller sports as a sex worker in Female Trouble, I feel like a really missed out on a spectacular carnival experience in high school. All I remember from the local fairs I attended is people puking. Not that Euphoria missed out on the opportunity for projectile vomiting:
Things really pick up at this fair once Maddy and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) take molly, and experience a burst of ill-advised confidence in a mirrored fun house (“Right now, I’m looking at a thousand different versions of myself and not only do I look good, I fucking feel good”). Rather like exiting as doppelgängers from Us, the duo emerge as true visions of juvenile delinquency: Maddy by pushing over her boyfriend Nate’s father’s award-winning chili and calling his mother a “cunt,” while Cassie…well…
She becomes a glorified filth idol. How? By masturbating on a carrousel. Rubbing herself against her horse’s pole, she exclaims, “I could ride the carrousel for HOURS!” before bucking back. I bet, lady! After she, ahem, finishes, she looks around, and is surprised and more than a little ashamed to see a crowd of horrified and amused responses to her erotic performance. What did she expect?
Now, no amount of highly aestheticized neon lighting will wipe the stain of sleaze off of a scene like that. And perhaps this juxtaposition between Waters’s early Duke of Dirt films and Euphoria has a larger meaning. John’s films like Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos were created after a certain type of American optimism shattered in the late 1960s. Nixon’s election (and eventual second term), all those assassinations, and endless Vietnam War motivated Hunter S. Thompson to retreat to a hotel room in doomed Vegas in order to decry the death of the American Dream. Likewise, John Waters didn’t need to proclaim it in writing, he created his own cinematic manifestos with drag queens eating shit and murdering filth wannabes for assholism. For us too, the meager optimism of the Obama years seemed to disappear as soon as it arrived, replaced by unavoidable climate change, an orange clown, and the dissolution of dreams of success for all but the very wealthy. I mean, what else is there to do than rub one out on a carrousel horse while gacked to the teeth on molly? It’s John Waters’s world, might as well live in it.