At some point in our evolution—morphing from curious observers to passive watchers to hyper-consumers—binge-watching became the preferred mode for TV consumption. In the beginning, the shift was celebrated. We ran free, moon-eyed with hope for a future we didn’t yet know would hinder our health, social development, and trust in tech. Our sentient bodies were no longer tethered to couches nightly, held captive by appointment TV. We roamed happily, accessing the most talked-about prestige dramas and zombie thrillers from our laptop screens and iPhones. We held the power, and relished every moment of it.
But then something happened. We got greedy. We became streaming snobs, gorging on content. The language around the shift became so culturally pervasive that at one point the collective tenor on social media was to “Netflix and chill” with one’s partner, Instagram crush, or completely alone, soothed by the nonstop churn of House of Cards or old episodes of The Office (the phrase eventually took on a second life as a meme about modern hookup culture). Yet, we were not entirely at fault. Our dietary rhythms had been shaped by the nation’s growing dependency on screens as irresistible portals of entertainment. Our actions made sense. We kept quiet, happily caught in the tide of digital oversaturation. We had no reason to question the slow rot inside our bodies and brains, or how our fattening consumption habits were changing the nature of conversation around TV. We simply craved more. Everything. All at once.
Binging, as a lifestyle, is the one unifying tent of the modern era. It defines almost everything we do: how we eat, how we spend, how we medicate, how we game, how we consume the news and especially how we devour TV. Lately, I’ve felt especially vulnerable to the fangs of marathon viewing. This year alone I’ve spent hours on my couch, horizontally spread, watching Homecoming or feasting on The Bodyguard. The day’s onslaught—say, news of something President Trump tweeted or another mass shooting—is unabating. So I rush to shut out the noise with more noise. For me, it makes sense. Binging has its purpose.
Still, despite a blind sprint by just about every network and megacorporation to OTT supremacy, there are shows that resist our instinct to hyper-consume. In fact, one of the summer’s most polarizing series, the Sam Levinson-created HBO drama Euphoria, prizes the slow watch. It’s delicious, anxiety-addled TV, with its candy-colored cinematography, emotionally turbulent plot lines, and chronic embrace of adolescent vice.
Across its mostly terrific eight-episode first season, which concluded Sunday, Levinson introduced explicitly hard-to-swallow themes—drug addiction, domestic abuse, the hazards of online hookups, pedophilia, depression—and didn’t hold back with regard to the physical and psychological violence these issues havoced on his characters. In one early-season scene, Rue (show lead Zendaya), who is a recovering addict, is forced to lick liquid fentanyl off of a knife by a sinister drug dealer. The performance is full of tension and sorrow. You watch her wanting to resist, but know she can’t. The act throws Rue back into a dark spiral of dependence. Elsewhere in the series, town paragon Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane) seduces underage transwomen to hotel rooms, where he sadistically records their sexual encounters, and 16-year-old Kat (Barbie Ferreira), beset by feelings of insecurity, turns from writing Tumblr fanfiction to secretly working as a cam girl. Euphoria has the surface texture of teen dramas like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Skins but the feel of a three-day acid trip—which is to say it is a modern coming-of-age story about drug use and sexual liberation but told with doses of manic whimsy.
The show is frighteningly hard to watch—it didn’t temper my anxiety one bit all season—but its choice to skid easy definitions around difficult topics is what makes it an important cultural engine of our time. Levinson doesn’t sugarcoat reality, however uneven or insubstantial storylines may seem to viewers or critics. I didn’t grow up in a suburban enclave like Rue or Kat, one wrecked by secrecy and dependency issues, but the show’s talents are gripping enough that anyone, no matter where they were raised or what experience they had in high school, can identify with what’s transpiring on screen.
Euphoria privileges real issues that warrant time. In the penultimate episode, Rue twists into a tomb-like depression. She locks herself in her room, gorging on episodes of Love Island, and cycles through feelings she can’t seem to control, which only spurs her imbalance more. Even a simple act like using the bathroom proves impossible. For me, it felt like the first true depiction of adolescent depression rendered thoughtfully on screen, a genuine excavation into the interior of the mind without the prick of judgement. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Binge culture doesn’t allow for that same kind of viewer contemplation—we sit with characters for hours over a weekend or late at night for ungoldly amounts of time, but just as quick as they enter our lives, so too do we shuffle them out, making room for others. That’s partly the joy of an anti-binge show like Euphoria; it’s not meant to be fussed over in 72 hours. The characters demand examination. Splayed out across eight weeks, we begin to find common ground, even with characters we never thought we would (notice how Angus Cloud’s Fez went from a periphery note to a universal fan favorite). In a weird way, they become a bit like family. They’re people we know. They mirror issues we’ve seen or have been challenged by up close. The beauty in that kind of difficulty is that when a show like Euphoria ends, it doesn’t feel rushed and we don’t feel totally cheated by it, because it’s earned our love and respect over time. We’re able to see it for what it really is: an imperfect but valuable thing, scars and all.