4.5/5 stars 

Zendaya, Jacob Elordi, Jacob Elordi’s abs, mental illness, glittery eye shadow and a lot of sustainable bike-riding. This show is a deviation from the high school drama that only HBO is brave enough to present to the public. 

The story is a wild ride from the very first words and series of images as we are acquainted with Rue (Zendaya), a teenager whose life has been composed of therapists and medications and who was introduced to drugs through her dying father, which led to a drug addiction, overdose and rehab. 

Rue returns from rehab at the end of the summer to introduce the audience to the colorful characters in her entourage – younger sister Gia (Storm Reid); Fez (Angus Cloud), Rue’s dealer; friends Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Kat (Barbie Ferreira); popular girl Maddy (Alexa Demie) and arrogant, manipulative and irresistible Nate (Jacob Elordi). Newcomer Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl, shakes things up for the already unstable teenagers. 

The show is based on an Israeli miniseries of the same name. The only thing conventional about it is its drive to be unconventional, but, unlike other shows, this one manages to do that by presenting real-life issues that affect real teenagers in raw, uncut situations, even if seen through a Lightroom preset.  

The show portrays the hardcore hardships of being a teenager in 2019, from drug usage to sex tapes. Rue’s narration of the story, focusing on a different character in each episode as we get to know their perspective and quirks and the issues affecting them, made the show really stand out from other high school dramas attempting to do the same. It reminded me of “Skins” (UK show).

I really felt torn as Rue’s early childhood unraveled. She seemed like a creative if somewhat different child, but this resulted in a diagnosis of a myriad of mental health disorders, some of which she was too young to even be diagnosed with. She also didn’t start having panic attacks until after they put her on meds.

That being said, the portrayal of panic attacks, depression and depressive episodes, self-destructing behavior and substance abuse was so accurate. I give major props to both Zendaya and Schafer for their acting as well as series creator Sam Levinson. The series shows mental illness in a way that people who refuse to acknowledge mental illness might understand.  

Maddy and Nate’s relationship is t-o-x-i-c. Maddy is so obsessed with Nate and the stability he can offer her as a trophy wife – her career goals – that she endures his abusive behavior. She, in turn, manipulates him and drives him to take advantage of a guy she pretended to have sex with at a party to make Nate jealous. They’re both horrible people, and the actors play them so well. 

The situation with Cassie and Kat was paradoxical. Cassie’s boyfriends always want to film sex videos with her. One of them leaks the video, but it’s Cassie who gets the bad rep, not him for distributing private, intimate videos. Curvaceous Kat gains the confidence she needs to make money off men online once she stops giving a f*ck, something traditionally-beautiful Cassie would benefit from as men as constantly take advantage of her. 

Finally, there’s the character of Jules. Hunter Schafer is gorgeous, and her character is captivating. I had never come across a character like her. Whilst her backstory was heartbreaking, her character was so positive and uplifting to those around her. I also love that Jules showed the difficult, sometimes-hidden lives trans teens lead and how they can lead to dangerous situations. I was so angry at how Elordi’s character treated her. 

Costume designer Heidi Bivens and her team outdid themselves with the street style and makeup. Every single one of Jules’ outifts, her and Rue’s Halloween costumes, and Cassie’s “Alabama Worley” blue eyeshadow gave me major style envy. I almost bought the eyeshadow until I remembered I don’t usually wear makeup. The setup is exquisite but not distracting at all from the acting and plot, and that is a major feat. 

The musical score and continuous psychedelic imagery combined with the witty writing – I laughed when Rue said that being fresh out of rehab isn’t a deterrent from doing drugs, then compared Jules to fentanyl – combine to produce a show that is every bit as interesting as the last season of “Game of Thrones” wasn’t. These characters are interesting because they’re so complex, so real and so relatable. 

The series is an absolute must-watch. If you’re fresh out of high school, it might bring back some memories. Hopefully not too many, though. 

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