‘Euphoria’ season 2 review: Zendaya returns in HBO’s dreary teen-angst drama

Despite Zendaya’s attention-getting, award-winning presence, the HBO series remains so unrelentingly bleak and nihilistic that it’s overly defined by how far series creator Sam Levinson will push standards in terms of nudity, sex and drug use. (Answer: Pretty far indeed.)

“Euphoria” works overtime to differentiate itself from the airbrushed soapiness of “Gossip Girl” or other TV contributions to the genre, endeavoring to rival the rawest movies that have probed these areas or premium series like “Genera+ion” and “13 Reasons Why,” itself a source of controversy.

Yet any television show ultimately boils down to the characters, which is where the series falls short, even with the flights of fantasy — giving certain episodes an almost dreamlike quality — and heavy-handed narration provided by Zendaya’s Rue, whose struggles with addiction persist.

Levinson has structured the season as a series of stories involving individual characters, gradually bringing those strands together over the course of the seven episodes previewed. Yet there’s a repetitive quality to the issues at work, central among them Rue’s relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer) and the triangle involving Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), Maddy (Alexa Demie) and Nate (Jacob Elordi), each bruised and damaged in their own way.

Nor does the new season completely escape the earlier tendency to reduce the parents to either monsters or ineffectual nags that recall the unseen voices in the old Charlie Brown cartoons, despite an effort to flesh out some of their histories.

Criticizing “Euphoria” as someone weaned on earlier generations of teen dramas risks a certain “Get off my lawn” quality, and the show has its share of critical admirers and ardent fans, earning Zendaya an Emmy for its first season and the intensity of her performance.

That said, as written the characters almost dare viewers to care too deeply about them, and the show’s attempts to be edgy occasionally feel simply icky, including a later encounter in which a gun is brandished as a kind of foreplay.

Granted, in the streaming age a show like this isn’t intended to be everyone’s cup of tea and doesn’t need to be, with the advantage that “Euphoria” appeals to an audience that might not regularly watch much else on HBO or HBO Max. (It returns along with another series presenting a different spin on dysfunctional families, “The Righteous Gemstones,” which isn’t a particularly compatible pairing.)

The teens in “Euphoria” (played by twentysomethings, as is common) haven’t cornered the market on self-absorption and obviously didn’t invent it. In the final analysis, though, this latest batch of episodes unfolds with the kind of grim, unpleasant efficiency that can make one feel every bit as numb as Rue sounds.

“Euphoria” season two premieres Jan 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.