Why a #wokemoment won’t make you more relevant

And Just Like That. . . it transpired that you can lob any number of contemporary references at a drama – a trans rabbi, late-onset lesbianism, pandemic fist-bumping; hell, you can even preface issues of divisive topicality with a klaxon announcing that the upcoming discussion will be a #wokemoment – but you cannot make it relevant.

Michael Patrick King’s reboot of the Sex and the City franchise finished last week with a clutch bag of human ashes, and the distinct impression that the whole series might have benefited from an earlier expiration. I watched every episode. Obviously. Carrie Bradshaw is my kryptonite, and I am powerless to resist her even though this series found her suffering the gross indignities of wetting the bed, becoming widowed and having to co-anchor a gruesome podcast called X, Y and Mewith a pansexual comedian. The only character who aged well during the show’s near 20-year absence from the small screen was Samantha, the compulsively sex-driven publicist played by Kim Cattrall who appeared only via occasional text messages. Wise move, Kim.

Part of the show’s fascination was in its relentless campaign to seem more contemporaneous and relevant. I came for the outfits but stayed for the cringe-inducing lines crowbarred into even the most basic dialogue. Is there anything more ick than having the officiant at a wedding announce: “You may now kiss the bride, or whatever else will get you the most likes on Instagram”?

Fans have been critical of the producers’ failure to recoup the magic of the original. Although it was quite magical thinking to assume that a series about thirtysomething singletons shopping and shagging in pre-9/11 Manhattan could sustain any momentum two and a half decades after first airing. Shoehorning in ancillary characters designed to make the show more inclusive made the plots seem labour and expositional. Too often the stories felt leaden and forced rather than clever and contemporary.

Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in 'Euphoria'

Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in ‘Euphoria’

And Just Like That. . . didn’t work, mostly, because it was too enmeshed in its specificity. By contrast, the most contemporaneous and interesting show on television at the moment is another HBO series, Euphoria. At least for young people. Now in its second season, the Sam Levinson drama airs in old-timey weekly installations and has generated the sort of fevered anticipation that rarely accompanies new dramas, especially among millennials and Gen Z viewers: according to Variety, this season’s premiere drew 13.1mn viewers , a 100 per cent increase in audience size compared with its series one precursor.

Following the lives of a group of high-school students in East Highland, a non-specific suburb in California, Euphoria is an unflinching account of contemporary adolescence in which the main character is Rue, a drug addict played by Zendaya. Like And Just Like That. . ., Euphoria depicts a spectrum of sexual, political and gender identities. Unlike And Just Like That. . . , few of the plot lines are built on identity politics. Everyone is too high, or stoned, or drunk, or busy applying party glitter to bother debating the rights and wrongs of society.

Euphoria has no real co-ordinates: it’s set anywhere there are teenagers, albeit very attractive ones who live in a miasma of lusty abandon to a soundtrack of musical bangers. The pandemic has never been mentioned, even though the first series aired last summer. The cast carry the accessories and brands of the era, but – like kids in the old days – they still ride pushbikes and clamber through bedroom windows. Time is elastic; the soundtrack ricochets around the decades so that the drama is distanced from a fixed moment. It’s a genius move. By simply presenting rather than discussing the world, Euphoria has harnessed the zeitgeist.

Does something become more relevant because you throw in the right kind of details? Or does relevance simply bubble through something because it is of that moment? I flicked through Mrs Dallowaythe other day while thinking about this question. Getting reacquainted with it from my school days, I had remembered the modernist novel as having only a sprinkling of contemporary references but was surprised to find it packed full of proper nouns, political talking points and geographical locations. Virginia Woolf certainly had no issue with dropping in the odd “Mulberry” in her interior monologues: but the pertinence of the details is only ever an adjunct of another more memorable journey.

Euphoria is no Mrs Dalloway, but it is conceived and directed by people who have a decisive grip on the moment. The references are all there, but they aren’t used like a bludgeon, they simply fill out a compelling, heightened and highly addictive take on the teenage experience. It’s possibly not a place you are in a rush to revisit. But it’s an education.

Most of us are terrorized by the idea that our views, ideas or impressions are becoming staid and old-fashioned. Or, worse, that by trying to keep on top of social trends we look irrelevant and slightly desperate. Perhaps that was why And Just Like That. . .proved so compelling? It made me feel culturally superior. Watching Euphoriahas the reverse effect: I feel a tragic pensioner.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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