The Idol: the starry TV sensation that has critics in a whirl
Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Idol is emerging as one of the buzziest new TV series of this year. Its formula is almost foolproof: helmed by a starry, Gen Z nepo-baby (Lily-Rose Depp), executive produced by a major pop star (Abel Tesfaye AKA The Weeknd) and co-written by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, the series has all the hallmarks of a TikTok-dominating, think-piece generating, Twitter thread-spawning sensation. Dogged by controversies for months its status as the enfant terrible of Sunday night television was cemented this week when it premiered its first two episodes at Cannes film festival and was almost immediately decried by the world’s media as “torture porn” and “more regressive than transgressive”.
On paper, the story about an aspiring pop star, Jocelyn (Depp), and her “complex” relationship with a self-help guru and cult leader Tedros Tedros (Tesfaye) had all the makings of a biting satire, skewering fame in the post-MeToo era. A female director — Amy Seimetz (who had previously worked on The Girlfriend Experience and She Dies Tomorrow) — was attached to theproject and shooting began to great fanfare in 2021. By the time of its premier, though, Seimetz had been replaced (allegedly leaving when the show was 80 per cent complete) and the story had morphed into something else entirely.
Writing from the Cannes film festival, The Standard’s reviewer, Jo-Ann Titmarsh, called the depiction of women “extremely troubling” with Depp spending “most of her time semi-naked or performing sex acts. She has no real agency.” In fact, the project is now said to be even more sexually explicit than Euphoria (which was not exactly tame) and has even faced accusations of playing out a ‘rape fantasy’ in certain story arcs.
Tesfaye, who co-wrote The Idol alongside Levinson as well as producing and starring in it, has called the allegations “ridiculous” and Depp says she has “never felt more supported or respected in a creative space” than on the show’s set. But that hasn’t stopped the condemnation pouring in. So where did it all go awry for The Idol? The show started life as an artistic love-in between the creators. Tesfaye has been a fan of Levinson ever since he stumbled upon the trailer for his thriller Assassination Nation in 2018. Tesfaye reached out to Levinson and the pair formed a friendship. The following year, Tesfaye saw one of Levinson’s moodboards for Euphoria and, according to sources, suggested that they collaborate on a film. “We wanted to explore fame and the music business for all its darkness and absurdity,” Levinson has said in the past. They ended up with The Idol.
The show went into development in June 2021 and was ordered to series by November, with Seimetz signed on to direct. Succession writer Mary Laws was also enlisted, with newcomer Joe Epstein assigned as showrunner. Seimetz was considered a good fit for the project thanks to the dark, psychological nature of her previous work. According to a damning expose by Rolling Stone in March, though, sources claim that Seimetz was destined to fail from the start, with scripts that were unfinished, a tight schedule and a low budget despite expectations of Euphoria-esque results. “Amy was doing her best in an impossible situation, but she was going to lose this no matter what,” one production member said.
From what we know about the storyline of the show at that point, it seemed to revolve around a troubled starlet falling victim to a predatory industry figure and fighting to reclaim her own agency — a Depp-heavy storyline viewed through a feminist lens. It also seemed to feature a cameo from Britney Spears, who posted about filming scenes in November 2021. Then reports emerged of trouble in paradise. Tesfaye was allegedly unhappy with the “female perspective”, despite several episodes worth of content having been filmed. Seimetz walked, as did actress Suzanna Son, and the show went into a state of mass overhaul.
“The Idol’s creative team continues to build, refine, and evolve their vision for the show and they have aligned on a new creative direction. The production will be adjusting its cast and crew accordingly to best serve this new approach to the series,” a HBO spokeswoman told Deadline at the time.
The Idol was then handed over to Levinson, who has become an HBO darling since the success of Euphoria. That said, his rise to prominence has come with its fair share of criticism, particularly over the amount of nude and sexual scenes in Euphoria, a TV series about teenagers.
Sydney Sweeney, 25, who plays Cassie in the show, addressed the topic in an interview with The Independent. She said: “There are moments where Cassie was supposed to be shirtless and I would tell Sam, ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here.’” She then defended Levinson: “He was like, ‘Okay, we don’t need it.’ I’ve never felt like Sam has pushed it on me or was trying to get a nude scene into an HBO show.
“When I didn’t want to do it, he didn’t make me.” However, sources told Rolling Stone that the The Idol’s storyline changed so much following Levinson’s rewrites that it lost its feminist lens almost entirely and became “the thing it was satirising”. “It was like any rape fantasy that any toxic man would have in the show,” a source said, “and then the woman comes back for more because it makes her music better.”
Some of the more disturbing story ideas allegedly floated by Levinson and Tesfaye included a scene where Tesfaye’s character Tedros beats Depp’s character Jocelyn until her face is bloody, only for her to smile and ask for more, giving Tedros an erection. Another scene was said to have showed Tedros insisting that Jocelyn carry an egg around in her vagina. A source has claimed that they couldn’t work out how to film the egg insertion, so scrapped it. Neither Levinson nor Tesfaye have commented on these rumours. Though, Levinson has explained how the project ended up in his hands, saying: “HBO had dedicated a tremendous amount of autonomy and financial resources to the show and it wasn’t working,” which is when he stepped in.
It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that this week’s premier has proved to be so divisive. Some of the claims about the show’s hypersexualised nature seem to be true. The Idol’s first episode focuses on Jocelyn after she deals with the leak of an intimate picture where she appears to have semen on her face.
The Hollywood Reporter claimed that its preview at Cannes confirmed the Rolling Stone rumours. “Jocelyn asserts her agency in the first 10 minutes, only to relinquish it at every conceivable moment,” the review reads.
“Rarely does a scene go by without the camera showing flashes of her breasts or ass. You start to wonder if this is building to anything, and by episode two it seems likely that it’s probably not.”
On the flip side, Deadline praised Depp’s performance as “grounded and often vulnerable,” and said the sexism jury is out until later episodes are revealed. It looks like all we can do is wait and see.
In the meantime, despite (or perhaps because of) everything, the first official teaser clip has garnered 1.6 million views on YouTube, while dedicated fan accounts for The Idol are already popping up ahead of its June air date.
The music industry’s treatment of its young stars is without a doubt fertile ground from which to explore themes like power and coercion. Of course, whether The Idol is created with sufficient care and nuance to stop exploration becoming exploitation remains to be seen.
The Idol is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW from June 5