Though Euphoria is only two episodes in, HBO’s newest series has amassed more critical attention than most shows see through their entire run. Before the series debuted, word of statutory rape scenes and drug use swirled around the internet and into the minds of concerned parents hoping to shield their impressionable children from the glare of the extreme high school experience. But among the headlines, one story reigned supreme—the legend of the 30 dicks.
On Sunday night’s episode, the gaggle of penises (gaggle? crop? murder?) made their debut in the first ten minutes of “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.” They were objectively fine. When it comes to shock value, the bar is set pretty high when the pilot of a series features Eric Dane’s erect (prosthetic) penis raping a transgender teenager. But the 30 dicks of Euphoria ended up just being flopping, flaccid appendages on display in a locker room scene that fails to achieve its intended purpose. In an era when edginess is synonymous with craft, what could have been a one-penis-five-second exchange is blown into 30 penises shot in various states, distances, and angles.
The scene centers around Nate, the star athlete with anger issues and some serious sexual anxiety. All those penises are just a short aside in the story of Nate’s life, which gets a brief overview at the top of the episode. He’s not just the son of a man who has regularly preyed upon trans women and gay men, but the son who carries that secret around after discovering his collection of homemade porn featuring his father in the act. He’s the masculine heir apparent to a very broken man who expects his son to end up like him. Nate’s fucked up childhood manifests itself in equally fucked up anger and toxic masculinity. He is only attracted to the most feminine, “perceivably weak” women, and yet at the end of the episode, he’s revealed to be chatting on a hookup app with the same trans girl his father raped in Episode One.
That’s a lot to process, so let’s head back to the penises, which are abruptly folded in the crude rundown of Nate’s life. As Zendaya’s voiceover explains, “He hated how casual his teammates were about being naked. How they’d talk to him with their dicks hanging out. He made a concerted effort to always maintain eye contact during those exchanges.” It’s all a very long-winded way of turning other penises into Nate’s enemy—a reminder that his father is a serial cheater who fetishizes trans women. But outside of the context of the show, it’s a prime example of a growing trend in prestige television. The more grotesque or shocking or explicit, the more likely it will be perceived as noteworthy.
The explicit nature is an obvious choice, in a way. The 30 penis scene (originally slated to feature 80 penises) fits within the type of storytelling Euphoria has done across two episodes—the excess is a comment on the calamity of adolescence. But what made the scene so ineffective is that in this case, the excess of penis didn’t make a point other than further suggest that Nate is surrounded by the appendage that has dictated how he views himself. But the closeups and the flopping and the wide shots exist as no more than a fancy technical reminder that Euphoria is able to squeeze 30 penises into one scene. The scandal stops there. Euphoria‘s edgy locker room scene is no more than a director’s cut of all the butts in the locker room during Steel Magnolias.
To be clear, I’m not against penises showing up in prestige television. As many have said before, it’s beyond time that men are put on display at the same rate as women when it comes to onscreen nudity. But Euphoria‘s much anticipated scene only highlights the blurred line between storytelling and being risqué for sport. All those penises existed for one reason: to raise an eyebrow in headlines. You’d think that a series bold enough to tackle predatory catfishing and teenage oxycontin abuse would be enough. Then again, maybe that’s the point.