It’s no secret that sex and Hollywood go hand in hand, but rarely do onscreen depictions of sex interrogate human sexuality in illuminating ways. As it began doing with “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” when it launched the current heyday of peak TV two decades ago, HBO is still producing the most incisive shows about contemporary sexuality anywhere on television. Two of the year’s new offerings, “Mrs. Fletcher” and “Euphoria,” prove the premium network still lives up to its lofty slogan. It’s not TV if nothing else even comes close.
Premiering to major ratings and online buzz this summer, “Euphoria” followed Rue Zendaya, a jaded teen battling addiction and her extended social circle of sexually active and culturally literate high schoolers who behave like twentysomethings. Along her raw and arduous journey towards sobriety, Rue develops a crush along with everyone else on her best friend Jules Hunter Schafer. Ethereal, sensual, and desired by many of the major characters — the character of Jules was a major windfall for trans-femme representation.
In the show’s first episode, she arrives at a seedy motel for an assignation with an older man she met online. Though innocently excited beforehand, she is quickly disillusioned by the rough, transactional sex. Even for the most porn-literate, the scene is jarring, intentionally so. Seeing her impassive face shoved into a pillow by this grey-haired daddy Eric Dane is upsetting, not because of the act itself, but because of Jules’ vacant stare and single tear. Schaefer, in a star-making performance, is a revelation.
For some, however, shock value is not the only reason the scene made an impression; many viewers were likely seeing an all-too recognizable experience depicted onscreen for the first time. Where “Euphoria” stumbles, and where we are reminded that HBO actually is TV, is when the repercussions from this one disappointing hook-up follow Jules for the rest of the season. Jules is not personally traumatized — she moves on rather healthily by exploring connections with other girls — but it’s the men around her who can’t let it go. This choice maintains the character’s strength, but not her agency. She is still at the mercy of cis straight men, though this is, admittedly, an unfortunate reality for many women.
Which brings us to the way “Euphoria” depicts cis men’s sexuality. Nate Jacob Elordi is undoubtedly the villain of the show, though he is given ample screen time to be lusted over and many opportunities for sympathy. In Nate, we see creator Sam Levinson’s...
We know the adage that if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. And as we live through this current dark timeline you’d assume it’d be too much to watch a nine-episode series about the continued oppression of women and the creation of the political divide we’re seeing play out today. In reality, what creator Dahvi Waller does with “Mrs. America” is tell a story about the numerous ways to be a woman — and that lack of unity is what ultimately keeps us divided. The A-list directors and cast do their part to create a work with so many moving parts, so many storylines and nuances worthy of their own series, that the series could easily lend itself to a book of essays.
Taking place between 1971-1980, it’s remarkable that each episode packs in so much history in a way that never feels superfluous. Each episode is titled after the woman who is the primary focus, with the first being conservative gadfly and face of the conservative women’s movement Phyllis Schlafly Cate Blanchett. With her pearl necklaces and toothy grin, Blanchett is the picture perfect embodiment of the happy housewife that Schlafly spoke for, raising six children with her husband, Frank John Slattery by her side. It’d be easy for the script to turn Schlafly into a one-dimensional, fire-breathing harridan — and with Blanchett simultaneously inhabiting the role of elegant villainess so many times before, her casting implies a lean in that direction — but, like womanhood in general, that’s too simplistic and easy.
With its marketing heavily using the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” it would imply “Mrs. America” to be more rebellious than it is. What Waller and the various directors — including Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, as well as Amma Asante — do is interweave the ERA fight with all the nuances of feminism that have kept women divided to this day. Schlafly’s crusade is the obvious adversary, but the series actually brightens to life more when it’s looking at the role of privilege and status that plays between the lines. Schlafly’s “Stop ERA” group becomes a cadre of mean girls on the small scale, led by Melanie Lynskey’s brown-nosing Rosemary. Schlafly’s desire to win at all costs eventually opens the group up to accepting racists and attracting the Klan.
Sarah Paulson’s Alice, Phyllis’ best friend who brings the ERA into Phyllis’ worldview, takes the reins for the second half of the series, turning in a bravura performance. The character appears to be fictional, which allows for her to develop from Phyllis’ lapdog to a woman who wishes to be better: more outspoken, more dignified. Presented alongside her is Pamela Kayli Carter, a scared housewife so desperate to escape her life yet...
Although “The L Word: Generation Q” may have tried desperately to speak to a “new generation” of queer women and non-binary folks, fresher creative voices quickly rose to the top in its place. Though people still watched. Showtime’s “Work in Progress” was the best queer comedy of the year, Netflix’s “Feel Good” was an unexpected delight, and “Vida” is returning just in time for queer audiences to catch up on the best show about queer women of color on TV. Yet another contender released a promising first trailer today: “Betty” is a stylish and youthful portrait of Brooklyn teen skaters that already appears extremely queer.
The six-part half-hour arrives on HBO from filmmaker Crystal Moselle, who quickly made waves in 2015 with her her riveting documentary hybrid “The Wolfpack.” “Betty” is adapted from her second feature, the similarly hybridized “Skate Kitchen,” which followed a group of teenage girl skaters in New York City. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews and was released by Magnolia Pictures that year.
In his B+ review of “Skate Kitchen” out of Sundance, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote: “The streetwise alternative to ‘Girls,’ the movie weaves together such a complete vision of its subjects that the rest of the world barely exists. Of course, there's a long-standing precedent to capturing this subculture — ‘Kids’ did it, with more adventurous storytelling twists, more than 20 years ago — but Moselle's subjects hold their own with the surprising ability to clarify their emotions through the cathartic process of hanging out.”
“Betty” features many of the film’s original stars, most of whom had not acted before, including Kabrina Adams, Dede Lovelace, Nina Moran, Rachelle Vinberg, and Ajani Russell. All accomplished skaters in their own right, the first trailer shows the charismatic crew navigating various crushes and friendship trials with compelling panache and humor.
“Betty” is directed, co-written, and executive produced by Moselle. Lesley Arfin and Patricia Breen are also co-writers. Arfin, who also EPs, is a comedy writer best known for co-creating the Netflix series “Love” with Judd Apatow and Paul Rust.
HBO will release “Betty” beginning May 1 at 11 pm ET. Check out the exciting first trailer below:
After discovering that her former hookup Cal Eric Dane is actually Nate's dad, Jules Hunter Schafer excitedly goes to meet up with "Tyler," the boy she's been texting, for the first time. But shockingly, "Tyler" is really Nate. "When Nate reveals that it's actually him, everything comes crashing down in that moment and it's a major turning point for her to sort of distrust not only herself but also this system," Schafer tells THR."I remember coming to set that day; Jacob and I were really tight throughout the series and filming, but that day was hard for us because we knew what was coming. I remember both of us staying in our own headspaces, which I think helped create some tension, which was palpable."
In the pilot, Rue Zendaya, right and Jules Hunter Schafer instantly become attached after they meet. After Jules finds out the truth about "Tyler" in episode four, she turns to Rue, who she knows harbors feelings for her, and their friendship blossoms into something more. "Jules' understanding in that moment that she can find the feeling she's been searching for in all of these men with her best friend who knows, loves and supports her and would love and support her through anything is so exciting," Schafer tells THR. "Rue and Jules represent a home that only they can really bring to each other. More than anything, they can make each other feel safe, and when they're together or making each other laugh or in each other's arms, nothing else really matters, which I think to some degree is what they're looking for. They've used different vices to acquire that feeling, but when they're together, the vices don't matter as much and they really can just push into each other."
The previous episode, "Shook One Pt. II," ends with Nate violently choking his girlfriend, Maddy Alexa Demie, after she probes him about questionable photos on his phone. When she returns to school in episode five, Maddy tries to disguise the bruising with makeup and a hoodie, denying that he hurt her to school officials. "I think even though he's the one who hurt her, it's a very dark, vulnerable time for her," Demie says. "She's seeking comfort in the relationship that she knows, and it's weird because as much as it's a violent relationship, she also feels a certain safeness in being with him." Despite her best efforts to cover up the abuse, Nate still gets suspended. "I think she's pissed that it happened, but she's hiding it, and she's pissed that everyone is in her business. She just wants it all to go away. Her plan didn't work, so she's just upset that everyone is involving themselves."
McKay Algee Smith has felt pressure from his dad all his life, and that struggle continues as he's figuring out his identity in college as a former high school football star. When his girlfriend, Cassie, comes to visit him, his frat brothers assault him in a frightening hazing ritual that he tries to brush off afterward. "His father tell[s] him to take his emotions and bottle them in, and when you get to the [football] line, that's when you let it snap," Smith shares with THR. "He tells him to not let it show, that the measure of a man is defined by how much he can take; that's one of the lines his father gives him. So when he's in the mirror, he's going back to that moment and hearing what his father said; he's taking all of that that just happened and he's bottling it up. You can see that once he bottles it up, he comes back with a calmer, or numb, state of mind."
In the penultimate episode, Cassie Sydney Sweeney finds out that she is pregnant. "She's a teenager, so she's of course terrified and scared, but there's the underlying fear of being alone," Sweeney tells THR. "In that moment, there's a thought and a realization that maybe she could never not be alone, but being pregnant and having a child, she'd always have somebody. That makes her feel safe, being able to have someone all of the time, like a best friend who will always look up to you, and you can be that superhero." But the reaction she gets from her boyfriend, McKay, is far from what she was hoping for. "When McKay shuts that entire idea down, it breaks Cassie's world, and that's why she says, 'I just want to dream about it,' because even though it wasn't expected and she didn't try to get pregnant, it was like, 'Maybe this is my path, maybe this is what I'm supposed to do.' "
The season one finale sees Rue relapse after Jules leaves town. Her unraveling is set to Labrinth's original song "All for Us," which Zendaya performs with a crowd of dancers all donning Rue's red hoodie. Showrunner Sam Levinson told THRhow he first broached the idea with Zendaya. "Z is so unbelievably fucking gifted that it felt like something that we had to tap into because it's an expression of the character and it is so much of this show and it becomes another way to enter her emotional experience," he says. "I remember after we shot the pilot, I told her that I wanted to do a musical number, and she was like, 'Are you for real? Are you fucking with me?' And I was like, 'No, no, I'm serious.' She was like, 'Let me see it first. I'm curious how you're going to pull this off, but I trust if anyone is going to do it, you could do it in some way that feels right.' "