Euphoria’s Israeli origin story
Before it was an international smash-hit HBO show set in California, Euphoria was a drama about messed-up middle-class kids in Israel. Here’s how the obscure original compares – and why it was cancelled after one series.
In the Israeli calendar there are two annual official memorial days, separated by one week.
The first is dedicated to Holocaust victims and survivors; the second, Yom HaZikaron, is dedicated to fallen soldiers and civilian casualties of terror attacks. The most iconic symbol of these days is a siren heard across the country. During these moments, all activity stops. Drivers pull over and get out of their cars, meetings are halted and all commerce is stopped.
Everyone, everywhere, stands and bows their heads.
The siren plays a crucial part in the opening scene of the original, Israeli version of Euphoria (Ophoria, or אופוריה, in Hebrew). Broadcast by cable company HOT, it debuted in the country in November 2012, seven years before the HBO adaptation became an international cultural phenomenon. The montage shows several of the series’ characters as they ignore the siren and just continue about their business.
Well, almost. It’s not that they’re too busy. These kids just don’t care.
You don’t have to be a sociologist to understand the creators’ statement. As part of the main narrative of “this generation doesn’t give a shit about anything”, head writer Ron Leshem and director Daphna Levin threw their heroes and heroines under the bus of Israeli national consensus.
The characters’ nihilistic credentials duly established, it was then easier to present the other sensitive issues that Euphoria deals with: drugs, sex, porn, depression, the loss of parenting authority, body image, more drugs, more sex and, by the fourth episode, a murder (inspired by a true event).
“When you were seven”, says the narrator, “people jumped from the Twin Towers on live television. And it was repulsive, and exciting, and logical. Parents have drowned their kids. Kids stabbed their parents. So, at the age of seven you got hooked on the news. And then you’re fed up with that. Because what could possibly shock you when you are eight?”
That’s exactly what the show’s creators wanted Euphoria to be in a somewhat conservative country: the new Shock TV, something to give parents panic attacks and younger viewers a voice. With the British hit Skins in mind, Leshem and Levin aimed to show a rough portrait of Israel’s next generation.
“Growing up is a trauma, any way you experience it,” Levin told Haaretz, Israel’s longest-running newspaper, at the time. “All of us – the sobbers, the stoned, the fat – dealt with these mini-traumas. It’s excessive but familiar.”
Beside the name and the premise (which can be summed up in three words: “growing up sucks”), there’s no significant resemblance between the original Euphoria – set, similar to HBO’s fictitious community of East Highland, in what feels like the centre of a middle/upper-class city – and its wildly more successful American incarnation. Although the Israeli version was considered to be well-directed, with its eye-catching visuals and raw aesthetics, it can’t be seriously compared to the groundbreaking, jaw-dropping artistic vision of 37-year-old American showrunner Sam Levinson (son of the Oscar-winning director Barry, whose movies include Diner, Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam).
(Recalling in 2019 how he came to create his version, Levinson told Entertainment Weekly that “I had gone in to sit down with [HBO’s Head of Drama] Francesca Orsi. I asked her what she liked about the Israeli series, and she said… what a raw and honest portrait it is of drugs and being young. So, I started talking about my own personal history with drugs. I was a drug addict for many years and I’ve been clean for many years now… [T]hen she said: ‘OK, go write that…’”)
Dramatically speaking, there are some parallel lines between the two shows. The Israeli version of Zendaya’s Rue is called Hofit (hof is a beach in Hebrew). She’s also a troubled teenager with a serious drug habit and a willingness to do many things in order to satisfy it.
The logic behind the actors’ casting is also similar. Like onetime Disney kid Zendaya, the casting of Roni Dalumi as Hofit was surprising. Prior to Euphoria (and, actually, still), Dalumi was best known for winning the Israeli version of Pop Idol and having a subsequent career as a sweet and harmless pop singer, the very definition of the girl next door. Seeing her onscreen in her underwear, eyes glazed and her arms covered in bruises, was shocking to say the least.
Other original storylines and characters are related but different. There’s Osher (bliss in Hebrew, because understatement is a dirty word in the world of Euphoria), an overweight boy who became a well-built teenager, although his porn addiction makes him sexually incompetent. There’s Dakar, close to Fezco from the US version, a drug dealer who isn’t old enough to shave. And there’s Noy, who resembles Kat, a girl with body issues who desperately tries to be loved and is drawn into the rabbit hole of casual and empty sex.
It’s interesting to note, too, that unlike the twentysomething cast of the HBO show, some of the Israeli actors were teenagers – kids tasked with filming sensitive scenes of drug taking and sex at a time when the job of “Intimacy Coordinator” was pretty much unknown. Talking to Haaretz, Leshem said that Levin, the director, told her cast on the first day of shooting that she was “willing to undress on set if it will help”.
But unlike Rue, Lexi and Nate, the characters on the original Euphoria lack the complexity and edge of their American counterparts. There’s no one like the endlessly fascinating Jules (Hunter Schafer), for example. Ultimately, the 10 episodes failed to translate the bleak depiction of young lives into a compelling story, as the OG Euphoria looked less like compelling, revelational TV and more like an audio-visual newspaper opinion piece about wayward teens.
Although the US Euphoria is a critically acclaimed show, its predecessor receives little recognition. Tellingly, outside Israel, you can’t even watch it on any streaming platform, apart from subtitled episodes uploaded by fans to YouTube – but the subtitles are in Hebrew. This disconnect doesn’t only derive from the fast-talked pace of a non-English-language show and its local nuances (like the siren). It’s two different kinds of TV.
The irony of all of this is: while Israelis are proud of the HBO drama’s international success, in real time they tried their best to ignore their very own Euphoria. When it was broadcast nine years ago, it received mixed reviews. Amongst the general population, it seemed as if the show’s abundance of extremely violent and sexual teenage behaviour was an affront to conservative Israeli sentiment. It was shown on cable, of course (that is, not on the regular, terrestrial programming watched by most of the country), nonetheless in a late-night slot due to its very adult content. As delayed watching or catch-up was expensive and therefore less commonplace in 2012 Israel, the show was doomed almost from the get-go.
It was hardly surprising, then, that Euphoria was cancelled after one season. Even now, after everything that’s happened with HBO’s version, from the critical acclaim and Zendaya’s Emmy win to social media virality, the storylines and characters that started the phenomenon are still not celebrated in Israel. Nor, for that matter, anywhere.
“I felt like a failure, doors were slammed,” Leshem recently told Israel’s Channel 12 news. “For over a year I tried to pitch other ideas and there were moments when executives didn’t call back. I was afraid that I won’t be able to make a living in Israel from writing.”
In the end, he didn’t have to worry. Ron Leshem, now 45, is a prolific and renowned writer/producer, locally and internationally, for shows like war series Valley of Tears and No Man’s Land, and big-screen thriller Incitement. Meanwhile, Roni Dalumi, now 30, is a singer and actress in Israeli national theatre. And overall, of course, whatever the failings of the original series, none of us would get to enjoy Sam Levinson’s East Highland without the Israeli Euphoria.
Imagine that – the hottest TV drama in the world is based on a show that nobody really saw.
Einav Schiff is TV & music critic for Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot