How 'Euphoria' Breaks the 'Rules' of Storytelling

'Euphoria'Credit: HBO
The Emmy-winning TV show Euphoria is a hit with audiences and critics because it doesn't care what you've seen before. It has its own rules. 

I've said it a thousand times but I will say it again here, there are no rules in screenwriting except planting and paying off details. Still, when you watch coming of age stories enough, you'll see certain tropes that pop up over and over again. 

These, in a way, become the "rules" of the genre, and they can become tired or worn out. 

That's when it's time for a new show or movie to enter the realm. One that breaks all the rules and maybe creates some new ones for others to try to emulate. 

In our time, that show is Euphoria, the graphic and gritty look at what it's like to grow up as a kid in today's world. It covers drug abuse, sexuality, gender, and social media. It's creator, Sam Levinson, wanted to bring a new vision to TV. And he's definitely achieved it. 

Let's take a closer look. 

How Euphoria Breaks the "Rules" of Storytelling  

For those unfamiliar, the show stars Zendaya as Rue, a recovering drug addict who narrates her life through voiceover. Her new best friend is played by Hunter Schafer, a transgender woman. 

While there won't be new episodes of Euphoria until 2021, I am still reeling from a first season that took us on a wild ride. After Zendaya won her Emmy last night (making her the youngest to ever win the award for Lead Actress in a Drama), I think a lot of people took notice of the show. Hopefully, they become fans. 

One thing they should know right off the bat is that Sam Levinson is not interested in you being comfortable or settling into cliches. 

He told The Los Angeles Times, "As with the conception of the show, it’s, 'Let’s break all the rules we can.' Because it feels like the way that we consume stories, or the way that we follow narratives, at this particular point in time is haphazard and meta... It felt like breaking down traditional narratives was the perfect way to tell the story. Breaking the fourth wall [and] voice-over that shifts from first-person to omniscient was just part of the DNA of it. And we tried to be unafraid about it."

That fearless quality is what carried the show onto the airwaves. Levinson pitched to HBO and got his actors ready to make a show that was going to challenge preconceived notions. Though Levinson went in not thinking about that directly. He wanted it to be entertaining. 

"...I tend not to approach things intellectually at first. Maybe after the fact I can look at it and see ultimately what it’s doing. I start with the characters and their inner lives. Particularly this show, which is all about subjective experience. I allow that experience to guide the story. Ultimately, whether it feels like a deconstruction or not is something that one can analyze, but it’s not necessarily how I approach it."

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Levinson says he writes from real life, so how much of the show is real? He told the AP, "Part of what I love about this show is that I can take experiences that happened in some way, shape or form and I can give them away to these other characters who can experience it in their own way and in their own circumstances. That’s ultimately what storytelling is all about for me."

Levinson drew on his own struggles with addiction.

He takes that personal journey not just in the writing, but also in the directing of episodes. “It’s about addiction and it’s about friendship and it’s about the people who you meet who can change your life, and it’s about holding onto these small moments of joy when they come your way because everything feels fleeting when you’re younger.” Levinson directed 5 episodes of the season and really has a creative hand in sculpting the way everything looks and feels.

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But, what if this show doesn't feel like it reflects your youth experience? 

I don't think that matters and neither does Levinson. “I’m certainly not making this show about all young people. I don’t think it’s reflective of every person’s experience,” he said. “It’s a show about these characters, and it’s a show about their emotional journeys and their lives.”

The show excels because it's so compassionate and empathetic. We don't have to have gone through everything we've seen on screen to identify with the emotions they elicit. Euphoria is not worried about fitting into what we want it to be. 

So much of the writing is just about taking risks to tell emotional stories that track, not wondering if the people who watch the show expect certain kinds of stories to be told because it's a coming of age tale. 

Don't be afraid to branch out and address things that your genre never has before...

What do you think of Euphoria? Let us know in the comments. 

What's next? Write your own TV drama

Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What's stopping you from selling your idea? Want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You've come to the right place.     

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It's still a pretty traditional hero journey-type story with all the trappings of a bildungsroman. We absolutely see Rue begin the story one way, arrive at an uncomfortable place, need to change but pay a price for it, and return where she began having learned a lesson.

There are some stylistic innovations and things borrowed from other narrator-heavy precursors like Dexter and The Handmaid's Tale that are new for the youthful soap genre but I still don't think this qualifies as breaking any rules. It's a very well executed show dripping with style and that can be good enough too.

September 21, 2020 at 5:53PM, Edited September 21, 5:54PM


A great article, and a lovely celebration of Euphoria! This is my take.

1. Intro
2. Visually mirrored scene from Ms. 45 by Abel Ferrara
3. Jules in her room as alluding to Ophelia painting seen in Jules' and Kat's art class
4. Cassie riding the merry-go-round with Daniel and being seen by the crowd of bystanders as symbolising her skating and being filmed unwantingly
5. The merry-go-round bystanders as symbolising the crowd by the pool as Maddy seduces Tyler
6. Brian DePalma's Scarface
7. Brian DePalma's Carrie
8. The television and movie excerpts watched by characters in Euphoria all allude to scenes within Euphoria
9. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
10. Kat's One Direction fantasy is being visually replicated as Kat is seduced by Ethan
11. Smells Like Teen Spirit
12. Outro

I also wrote a spontaneous essay on the subject a few weeks ago:

I love Euphoria because the visual storytelling is alongside - and surpasses - that of Park Chan-wook, because the cinematography draws from the expressionist cinema of Dario Argento, because the melodramatic heights is as non-sentimental, heartfelt and on a par with, say, Todd Hayne's Carol. Because the cinema of Carl Th. Dreyer is, vividly and boldly, celebrated in a series of perfectly beautiful close-ups of the crying and the tormented. Because the playful, rapid and unexpected narration, and, with it, a free flowing camera, could all relate to the most brilliant parts in the cinema of Gaspar Noé.

More than the masterful storytelling, the visual symbolism, the bold allusions to Brian DePalma, Scorcese, Kubrick and a bunch of halfway forgotten 70's 80's and 90's movies, what I love the most about Euphoria is the characters - and the actors that portray them. There's a scene in which Kat, a rounded teenager rebelling the world by becoming a webcam dominatrix, bursts out laughing at the tiny dick of the harmless chubby guy at the other side of the laptop screen. It's impossible not to get smitten by the laughter, it's a scene that could not have reached this height of actor brilliance were it not entirely improvised (or, at least not rehearsed in any way).

Director Sam Levinson made it a point to interview the handpicked actors for hours, and then collaborated - with some of them - in creating the characters. In this he works in the tradition of John Cassavetes: in spite of Euphoria being a meticulously planned production there's traces of Cassavetes' fluid improvisation when it comes to the way the actors portray their characters. In this, there is also the qualities of collaboration between actor and director found in John Cameron Mitchell's masterpiece Shortbus.

"People are always telling me about great TV shows. How I just have to watch this show. But the truth is, I don't want good TV. I don't want a novel, or some slow burn, or anything that feels like work. That's why I love reality TV. It's funny, it's dramatic, and I can focus on it. It's pure, effortless entertainment."

I started watching Euphoria like Rue (quoted above) watches Love Island. She is depressed and can't do anything else than to watch love Island for, like, 48 hours straight. For me, I didn't want to do anything that involved any brain activity. I had dropped the project of watching through the Kenji Mizoguchi box set. I still hadn't watched the latest Nuri Bilge Ceylan (which is my favorite contemporary director, surpassing Mallick). I just wanted to inject my brain with bland entertainment. I started watching Euphoria during a state of total depression, expecting nothing, wanting nothing.

A few episodes later, I realized that what I had selected at random to drain my brain was nothing but a cinematic masterpiece, well and truly.

There's a scene in which - spoiler here! - Rue and Jules (you'll get to know these two) finally kiss. For all the millenial nihilism that some would say is one of the themes of Euphoria.. In this scene, the kiss scene, Euphoria brings the classic movie kiss to the screen, a cinema kiss as though borrowed from a Douglas Sirk melodrama. There is a very brave balancing going on between pastiche and beauty - the dangers of the pastiche is being deliberately, masterfully, toyed with, to ultimately being completely washed away by the heartfelt beauty of the moment; one of the reasons being precisely that the scene draws upon and celebrates all that we know of movie kisses. It is in this sense that the music, a string piece from Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, composed by Pino Donaggio, couldn't be more fitting.

I could write pages celebrating the cinematic brilliance of Euphoria - there's just so much to be said.

Like, how, through all the depictions of depression and abuse, Euphoria is - also - a masterful celebration of the hilarious and the comic.

Or like the fact that Euphoria is utterly surreal. Suddenly there is a visiting amusement park in town: every character in the story join the festivities, in order to create a timespan in which they and their doings are able to narratively intertwine within the boundaries of one single enclosed area. The local drug dealers set up pretzel stand. It is all delightfully surreal, it is all brilliant.

There's the hilarious and never questioned scenario of small town millennials going to the halloween party dressed up as characters out of movies from decades ago (movies of which some, on top of it, could only be appreciated, let alone known, by the very most world detached of film buffs).

There's the introductory piece of each episode of Euphoria: cinematic short stories that cover the main characters' childhoods and that are all, in themselves, encapsulated cinematic masterpieces in their own right.

There's Euphoria bursting into a spectacular crescendo, both musically and cinematically, as the teen drama is turned into a musical.

And - on another note - there's the argument that one of the overarching themes of the entire story is the American opioid epidemic.

After having watched the series maybe four times in a row, I ended up picking it apart. There's complete scenes that are detailed allusions to Scorcese's Scarface and Carrie. There are scenes that are connected to each other in terms of disguised symbolism, referring to each other and visually mirroring each other. There's a close-up of the famous pre-raphaelite painting Ophelia: the mise-en-scène of a later scene is architected after the painting. There are a couple of television screens here and there in certain scenes, displaying bland content that, sometimes, doesn't seem to make any sense or have any connection to anything: taking a closer look, it turns out that it is references to scenes within Euphoria itself (the art term 'Mise en Abyme' is here appropriate).

If this isn't cinematic brilliance, I don't know what is.

And that's me, having fallen helplessly in love with "television entertainment" from the wrong side of the tracks....

Am I alone?

twitter: @halldinanton

November 22, 2020 at 4:46PM


Great post

February 2, 2022 at 8:16AM

Aaron Reed
Editor, writer