When the finale of the second season of “Euphoria” aired Sunday evening on HBO, the social media conversation about the gritty teen drama revolved around one character’s death, a battle royale between two other characters and the arc of Rue, the troubled teen played by Zendaya.
But a real-life person twice as old as any student at the show’s East Highland High School was also a major part of the fan discussion and meme-ing on TikTok, Twitter, Reddit and Instagram. And most of the social media posts about him were not compliments, as fans wondered why several plotlines had not ended differently.
Sam Levinson, who created “Euphoria” (adapting an Israeli program of the same name), wrote all 18 hourlong episodes and directed all but three of them, has emerged as a central figure in the narrative around the show, with fans routinely taking to social media to criticize his visions of the characters.
His name appeared in 300,000 tweets since this season began airing on Jan. 9, Twitter said last week, a figure dwarfed by mentions of the show’s most popular characters but almost unheard-of for a writer. (His mentions are roughly comparable to those of “#Fexi,” the shorthand for the wished-for romantic pairing of the characters Fezco and Lexi.) On TikTok, videos hashtagged #SamLevinson have received nearly 40 million all-time views, the company said.
While some prestige television shows have made their showrunners celebrities of a kind, for an offscreen writer-director to feature so prominently in fan discourse is unusual. And the tenor is arguably different than during the later seasons of an earlier HBO hit, “Game of Thrones,” when many fans argued that the showrunners were making an inferior product. Even Levinson’s critics admit that berating him for ill-serving a show they love — the same show he is making — is, as Slate’s Madeline Ducharme wrote recently, “a really weird way to engage in a discourse about your favorite television show.” (Levinson declined to comment.)
The extraordinary discourse around Levinson results from several notable features of “Euphoria.” It has no writers’ room, as most shows like it do, HBO confirmed, so fans might feel it fair to impute most creative decisions to Levinson. It has ballooned in popularity, drawing outsize attention. Perhaps most importantly, it tells complex stories about people whose stories are often not lent nuance in popular culture: people of color, drug addicts, queer and transgender people — and high-schoolers.
Put it all together, and you get in Levinson an artist whom fans love to hate, who makes something they love to love.
“It’s funny to suggest he should be taken off the show. It’s clearly his baby,” said Drew Gregory, a filmmaker and critic who has written about “Euphoria” for the queer news site Autostraddle. But she described fans’ irritation with Levinson as resulting precisely from things he had done right in writing, casting and directing.
“You created these characters,” she said, describing some fans’ attitude. “I’ve grown attached. And now you’re letting them down and letting me down.”
Paul Booth, a professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University, said Levinson’s curious status represents at once a continuation of trends in fan culture dating back decades and a contemporary acceleration of those trends.
Social media, he said, “makes you feel part of a community.” He added, “Because as a fan you’re contributing to a larger cultural understanding of the text, there’s a sense of ownership that takes place.”
Viewership has exploded this season, with the first episode garnering nearly 19 million viewers since its premiere, including on both HBO and HBO Max, the network said, which was more than two-and-a-half times the number of viewers for last season’s premiere over the course of that season.
One frequent fan objection is that Levinson inappropriately sexualizes certain woman characters. Cassie, a high-school character played by Sydney Sweeney, is filmed topless in several episodes. Sweeney said in an interview this year that she had pushed back against being nude in some scenes that Levinson had scripted — adding that Levinson readily accepted her suggestions. A second actress, Minka Kelly, told Vanity Fair that she too had objected to being filmed suggestively in one scene this season, prompting Levinson to rewrite it.
Both actresses made clear they had no hard feelings. But many “Euphoria” fans do.
Francesca Hodges, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a student-run newspaper that Sweeney’s conspicuous nudity and sex scenes placed her squarely “in the male gaze,” adding that “Levinson uses Sweeney as a vessel for the projection of male fantasy.”
Some fans have objected to a diminished role this season for the character Kat, played by Barbie Ferreira. In a group interview in The Cut, Ferreira said her character’s arc this season “is a little more internal and a little mysterious to the audience.”
A subtext to many of the complaints about Levinson is one that is familiar from a wider discussion in many cultural spheres over who gets to tell which stories, and about creators’ appropriations of characters, scenarios and experiences that are closely identified with marginalized groups to which they do not belong.
Some fans have wondered why characters who are diverse in many dimensions answer to a 37-year-old white man who grew up in the entertainment industry. (Levinson’s father is the Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson.)
“It’s the whole premise of this straight cis man who is writing a narrative about himself — about his past struggles with addiction — but then doing it through these different, diverse characters,” Hodges said in an interview.
Levinson has described the show generally and, in particular, Rue — who narrates the show — as extremely personal, saying he drew on his own experience with drug addiction.
“I feel like I’m watching a version of myself navigating the world at a young age,” Levinson said in a clip produced by HBO in 2019, when the first season ran.
“This show can’t be written by anyone else because it’s so personal,” said Zendaya in the same talk, adding to Levinson, “I have this idea that all the characters are just different facets of your personality.”
The playwright Jeremy O. Harris, a co-producer this season, defended Levinson in a TikTok video. “It’s been really fun to see people talk about ‘Euphoria’ and make theories,” he said, but insisted the set was both safe and fun for the cast.
Levinson and others associated with the show have said there is substantive creative collaboration between Levinson and cast members. The one time he shared a writing credit, it was with Hunter Schafer, the transgender actress who plays Jules, a trans character who was the focus of the episode.
The episode “excites because it’s not just one voice, letting a breath of fresh air into quarantine-tight quarters,” the critic Alison Herman wrote in The Ringer.
Some fans analyze Levinson’s work through the lens of his identity, but praise his imaginative empathy in voicing his concerns through characters who are not totally like himself.
“Let’s open this conversation up,” said Hadera McKay, a sophomore at Emerson College. She wrote a column in a student-run newspaper that insisted it was important to examine Levinson’s “use of Blackness,” but nonetheless found things to admire about it in “Euphoria,” where Rue is the daughter of a Black woman and a white Jewish father, and “Malcolm & Marie,” a film Levinson wrote and directed that appeared on Netflix last year (and which also stars Zendaya).
McKay said that she had “felt seen” by Levinson’s writing. “Most of the critics were white and critiquing his use of Black characters to describe something that was his experience,” she said. “I felt that was too reductive.”