Between the seas of Euphoria’s ragged deconstruction of tragically misunderstood young people are Levinson’s efforts to make his own adult showrunner self one of these touchstones of empathy. “Some people need to get their feelings hurt sometimes,” soft-hearted drug dealer Fez tells good-girl Lexi, defending her savage dramatic representations of friends in the play. Backstage, as the show devolves into chaos, Lexi’s sycophantic co-producer murmurs to another character that “art should be dangerous.”
In context, the platitudes read as Levinson publicly justifying his process—to his audience, or maybe to himself. Controversy has long swirled around the audacious, salacious nature of the show, and more recently reports have come out about the ethics of Levinson’s workplace, chronicling its performers’ growing discomfort with his insistence on nudity, among other things. Reporting on the show reveals the experience of a cast weary of their auteur’s meandering, insanely horny vision.
As much as Euphoria is a shockingly effective display of what arouses its director, it is also a showcase for what upsets him about contemporary social media rhetoric. In several conspicuous season two moments, we see characters badly misunderstanding power dynamics while spitting out hollow, internet-friendly social justice jargon. (Cue: Rue saying there need to be more women drug lords.) This sometimes-funny parade of topical strawmen ultimately comes off as bespoke grumbling—a sign of the disconnect between Levinson, an elder Millennial, and the Zoomers who make up much of the Euphoria audience. The result is teen women speaking like men in their late 30s, stopping just short of blaming “cancel culture” for everything that worries them about a changing world.
Like Levinson, Taylor Sheridan’s vice grip on Yellowstone‘s steering wheel led to some out-of-touch storylines in the show’s fourth season. John Dutton (Costner) is a lonely widower, occasionally involved with his state’s foxy governor, but mostly filling his void by preventing developers and financiers from stealing his huge piece of land, and by being an over-involved father of children well into their thirties . But in the show’s latest slate of episodes, a new woman enters Dutton’s life.
Played by Piper Perabo, Summer Higgins is a comparatively young animal rights activist. Something you might understandably forget, as the show constantly escalates by way of bloody extra-military campaigns and soap-operatic political intrigue twists, is that Dutton is a cattle rancher. So Higgins is an even less fitting romantic partner for him than Fez is for Lexi, on paper. But she and John hit it off, perhaps because the show is in an era where it needs that extra little something—or maybe because Sheridan just required a means to belittle vegetarians and leftist organizers.
Higgins is frustratingly clueless about everything she fights against, and about how the world works in general, creating an easy target for the show’s conservative worldview (“I am the opposite of progress” is something of a refrain on Yellowstone.) The character fits into a larger pattern of Sheridan enemy construction. The man behind the show has given us a lot of liberals like Higgins, or John’s Harvard graduate son (Jamie, played by Wes Bentley)—people who don’t belong in the modern iteration of the frontier west. They are shrill know-nothing parrots who have never gotten their hands dirty, or feckless weaklings who can’t fill a ten-gallon cowboy hat. It’s easy to see how this recurring dynamic, out in idyllic natural setpieces, pleases an audience yearning for analog played in the overstimulating digital world Euphoria documents in neon colors. The West, as Jane Campion says, is a mythic space. Sheridan’s inviting his viewers to believe the myth that their ways were right, and the new ones are wrong.
Even if their themes may differ, audiences of Euphoria and Yellowstone connect viewers as collectives in a way that few others can. These shows are breathtakingly, uncannily nuts, because Sheridan and Levinson have made TV their own boutique ranch, where the gnarliest animals of their psyche are free to roam. They’re magnetic viewing, which you can depend on to slap around and recalibrate your brain. We’re all letting Sheridan and Levinson lead us in gnawing on topical triggers—every one of us an equally jumble-brained barfly getting soused on the vivid atmospheric mess. Perhaps America can watch these Euphoria and Yellowstone Together instead of apart, uniting over their creators’ spectacular, singular obsession with freaking out about change and trying to figure out the world as it is, anyone gets there or not.