How Euphoria Helped Usher in a New Wave of Feel-Good LGBTQ+ Teen TV
Rainbows and Doodles are the New Glitter Makeup.
Since its debut in the summer of 2019, HBO’s Euphoria has quickly become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, for both its glittery avante-garde makeup and for its depiction of teens in every dark circumstance imaginable. The series has undoubtedly started important conversations, but when it comes to LGBTQ+ teens, Euphoria has portrayed them in a notoriously grim, gritty, and often tragic light. Euphoria’s three central Queer characters are Rue, Jules, and Cal, who are, in this order, a drug addict, the girlfriend who cheats on her drug addict girlfriend, and… a psychopathic criminal. Representation is important, but this is not the most positive of representations. In its wake, more heart-warming, feel-good, and aspirational Queer teen TV series have emerged. In particular, shows like Heartstopper and Love, Victor are a response to the increasing fatigue of dark and depressing Queer teen media.
To understand how and why Euphoria has made such a cultural imprint that it could spark an emergence of a new wave of teen media, we have to go back to the beginning. Euphoria’s first entry into the pop culture canon came with a Hollywood Reporter article published ahead of its premiere, which immediately established the series as shocking and rule-breaking. Headline-churning factoids included: one episode depicts over 30 penises (gasp!), parents will clutch their metaphorical pearls if they dare to tune in, and one actor dropped out mid-filming of episode one because he was so uncomfortable with the subject matter. With this, Euphoria began building what would soon be a massive hype train, one that only gained steam with each new scandalous and jaw-dropping episode. The shock factor has worked for Euphoria, solidifying its reputation as the edgiest teen series on tv. But over time, the thrill of the shock has been replaced with a palpable frustration over its increasing stray from any sense of grounded realism.
This fatigue was really solidified after the series' second season. It’s with season 2 that Euphoria became less a realistic representation of modern teen life, but a heightened, stylistic depiction of a specific group of teens, through the “sick and twisted” gaze of Sam Levinson. It’s important to note that Levinson is the 37-year-old straight son of successful director Barry Levinson, and while Levinson battled addiction as a teen like Rue, it has become clear that Levinson’s writing about teen girls when not dealing with drug abuse is lacking, often feeling heightened and unrealistic. With Season 2, Euphoria became more about elevating the shock factor and heightening the dark and adult tone. But the thing is: as the shock wore off, audiences would inevitably crave something to contrast such darkness. When we’re already living in an increasingly grim world, escapist, aspirational media becomes vital. Enter the LGBTQ+ teen series Love, Victor and Heartstopper.
Netflix's breakout hit Heartstopper, based on the popular young-adult graphic novel series by Alice Osman, replaces the alcohol with milkshakes, and the lines of cocaine with snow angels. It is a refreshing bolt of gooey, heartwarming positivity, so completely tonally opposite from Euphoria that it feels bold and subversive in its own wholesome way. Its renewal for two additional seasons is a testament to audiences’ desire for aspirational Queer teen stories as much as they want something gritty and edgy. Complete with bubbly synth pop, hidden rainbows, and colorful doodles incorporated in the cinematography, the series is alive with palpable joy and vibrance, bringing to life the intense and sparkly feeling of having a first crush. And that’s not to say that aspirational series can’t also address very real issues — Heartstopper depicts homophobic bullying and painful identity struggles, while Love, Victor goes even further, dealing with some of the same topics as Euphoria like addiction and mental health.
Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger and inspired by Love, Simon, the 2018 film based on the novel, Love, Victor finds a successful balance between dealing with dark issues and maintaining a strong sense of levity. In one episode in the latest season, two characters try drugs responsibly, and no one ends up in the hospital. In another, Victor gets an STD, confides in his best friend about it, who makes a joke to cheer him up, then they go to the clinic together so Victor can get tested. Benji is battling alcoholism, but the series finale finds him at a place where he’s willing to accept love and help from Victor. These plot lines are handled with care, and importantly, they show how crucial friend support systems are.
Love Victor’s central couple, Victor and Benji, are given a happy ending, despite Benji’s struggles with alcoholism. Reunited on a ferris wheel in homage to Love, Simon’s beloved and joyous ending, they kiss amidst fireworks and the twinkling lights of the carnival. While their tumultuous romance was wrapped up with a bow rather hastily, it still serves the series’ overall tone of aspirational positivity. What shows like Love, Victor and Heartstopper remind us is that you can depict real teen issues while also communicating to teens that there are light, and rainbows, at the end of the tunnel.