As Euphoria, on Sky Atlantic and Now TV, created by Sam Levinson, returns for the eight-part “difficult second season”, there’s a sense of so now what, you crazy kids? The first series, adapted from an Israeli drama, was one of HBO’s biggest hits in 2019 – and the most tweeted-about show, after Game of Thrones – delivering hyperreal explicitness about teen life that rattled parents, even as it drew in young audiences. Now, the shock value of drug-addicted, porn-addled, party-zombie US teens has gone, if it ever existed (the real shock would be a drama about scholarly, virtuous young people who value a good night’s kip). The danger of lapsing into parody seemed to be acknowledged by 2021’s two slower-paced specials, which separately examined two main characters: addict and chief narrator Rue (Zendaya) and her estranged transgender lover, Jules (Hunter Schafer).
The answer, for Euphoria, seems to be to go steamier, nastier, grittier, more provocative. The first episode opens with a backstory for drug dealers Fezco (Angus Cloud) and Ashtray (Javon Walton) – an energetic, albeit ludicrous granny-Goodfellas narrative featuring the shooting of a man as he’s being fellated. From there, it’s all Euphoria staples – illicit sex, betrayal, partying, violence – as Rue and Jules attempt to reconnect.
Among the cast regulars, Nate (Jacob Elordi) returns as the sociopathic all-American jock (think Ted Bundy who will mow your lawn first), while Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney (The White Lotus), is equal parts eroticism and neediness. Certain Euphoria parents, such as Nate’s dad, Cal (Eric Dane), persist as explainers for their screwed-up progeny. While some main players (including Jules) seem sidelined, there are new characters, such as Faye, played by real-life porn actor Chloe Cherry, who steals scenes as a drawling, no-fucks-given junkie.
Having watched ahead, I’d say that Euphoria remains utterly absurd while still eminently watchable. At times it’s just too pretentious, graphic and wretched to take seriously. It’s also overreliant on the motif of good-looking young people ugly-crying: look, it seems to gasp – the nubile and beautiful suffer too! To which you can only gasp back: so what?
Still, when Euphoria works, it works, and Zendaya – awarded an Emmy for the first series – continues to give as fine a portrayal of dead-inside drug addiction as I’ve seen. Here, sex and drugs are just the flashing neon signs to make you look. There’s usually more going on: an ache of sadness; a flaring of hope. The show is a reminder that youth can be the ultimate unsafe space; that it can be heaven and hell, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference.
Initially, the four-part BBC One thriller Rules of the Game, written by Ruth Fowler, directed by Jennifer Sheridan, promises much. Maxine Peake, recently seen in ITV’s Anne, plays sportswear company boss Sam, who discovers a dead body (unidentified at first) at her HQ. Is it suicide or murder? Flashbacks reveal an uber-toxic workplace culture: exploited young women; older predatory men; a furious whistleblower (Callie Cooke from The Stranger); an imminent stock exchange flotation requiring a corporate rethink; an earlier suspicious death. When new HR director Maya (Rakhee Thakrar) attempts to instil post-#MeToo guidelines, she not only has to deal with the male owners – brothers played with sulphurous faux-geniality by Ben Batt and Kieran Bew – but also inspires eye-rolling from a scathing Sam.
I wish things had continued in this fashion – subtle, relentless, acerbic. The culture war battle lines between hard-bitten, old-school Sam and nervy new-broom Maya are particularly well drawn: “Don’t try and shag her unless you want a lecture on feminism.” Elsewhere, Alison Steadman’s steely matriarch is terrifying, and a disturbing stalking subplot deserves its own series. However, Rules… falters as it goes on (all episodes are available to stream), floating off on soapy suds into myriad backstories, family dramas, infidelities, anxieties, secrets. It gets to the point where everything is so overexplained, the mystery stops being a mystery and just has to be played out.
Over on Channel 4, Screw, written by Rob Williams (The Victim), directed by Jordan Hogg and Tom Vaughan, is a six-part dramedy set in a men’s wing at fictional prison Long Marsh. Following the emotional tour de force of Jimmy McGovern’s Time last year, Screw sets out to humanise not just prisoners, but prison officers too, with Williams drawing on past experiences teaching inmates. The nuanced Nina Sosanya (W1A) plays a chief officer threatened by secrets from her past; Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Derry Girls) is a gobby newbie. Elsewhere, there’s Laura Checkley (King Gary), and male officers played by Faraz Ayub, Stephen Wight and Ron Donachie.
Having watched the whole thing, Screw seesaws rather too jerkily between liberal idealism and acid cynicism. Some overwrought – and plain daft – plotlines drag focus from a sense of looming threat. Still, in terms of characterisation alone, there’s fuel for a second series. It’s also great to witness O’Donnell segueing effortlessly into drama. As in Derry Girls, you can’t take your eyes off her: she moves through scenes like a firework that could explode at any time.
The third and final series of hit Netflix series After Life, created, directed by and starring Ricky Gervais as a grieving widower, arrives with many questions. How many videos did Tony make of his dying wife (Kerry Godliman)? Why did nurse Emma (Ashley Jensen), the quasi-love interest, put up with Tony’s wavering? Is Penelope Wilton’s character sleeping rough in that graveyard?
After Life remains tonally bizarre: one moment suffocatingly mawkish, the next jarringly crass. The cast, featuring everyone from Jo Hartley to Paul Kaye, is stellar (Gervais has a superb radar for working-class talent). At least it’s finally explained why a free-newspaper hack is living in a huge posh house (the dead wife sorted it out, presumably in a rare moment when she wasn’t being videoed).
Gervais is better than this – I loved it when he used to host the Golden Globes, genuinely alarming the A-list audience. Here, the finale, with superb use of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, shows imagination and spirit. Otherwise, I remain unconvinced by After Life’s exploration of grief. For me, there’s a blatant prodding of buttons; the sense of a cue card reading: “Audience, cry now!” It’s time for After Life to slip gently away.
What else I’m watching
The penultimate episode of this pitch-black drama in which a female high school soccer team survive a plane crash any way they can, including cannibalism. Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress and Melanie Lynskey play the girls as adults. A re-spin of Lord of the Flies.
The Green Planet
The indefatigable David Attenborough takes a look at the pivotal role of plants in nature. There’s everything here from a Costa Rican rainforest to underground fungus to (calling all goths!) corpse flowers from Borneo, which smell like rotting flesh.
The return of the Morecambe Bay-based crime drama, featuring a brand new detective, DS Jenn Townsend, with Marsha Thomason taking over in the lead role from Morven Christie. In the opening episode, a body washes up on the beach.