How 2023’s most anticipated TV show tanked the hype (and eventually, the premiere)
Trigger warning: this recap of the controversy surrounding “The Idol” contains mentions of graphic sexual activities
A little less than a year ago, the world was treated to a sneak peek of The Idol. The six-part series promised to show the dark sides of Hollywood show business: power, drugs, sex and betrayal. The enigmatic trailer had everyone on their toes, especially with the star-studded cast made up of industry veterans, fresh-faced newcomers and a beloved K-pop star. But in 10 months, The Idol slowly turned into an internal mess as cast and characters got written out, crew members were replaced, scenes were re-shot and millions of dollars went down the drain. All this with Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Euphoria’s Sam Levinson leading the way.
From the public reception of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2023, the positive interest in The Idol has drastically diminished. Its Rotten Tomatoes score—while not the end-all-be-all of a title’s success—dropped down to 10%. Explicit material greeted festivalgoers at the get-go, with Lily Rose-Depp in compromising and almost voyeuristic positions bound to make audiences uncomfortable. But hey, The Weeknd and Sam Levinson said they aim to piss people off with the show; maybe it worked too well?
The Idol: A timeline
A little less than six months since it was greenlit, HBO mentioned that the team behind The Idol aligned on a “new creative direction,” which means the adjustment affected some cast and crew members. This includes Amy Seimetz (The Girlfriend Experience) exiting her role as director. Instead, Sam Levinson, whose controversy with Euphoria constantly follows him even in new ventures such as The Idol, got to sit on the director’s chair. Later on, reports about The Weeknd’s alleged desire to have a show with less highlight on the cult aspect and more focus on himself were revealed to be the root of the overhaul—a decision Levinson was more than happy to oblige with as writer-director.
Eventually, Rolling Stone published a large exposé on The Idol’s transformation from satire to embodying the thing they’re making fun of. Over 10 sources approached the publication that The Idol has fully become “a shitshow.” Levinson’s ascension to the director’s chair meant doubling down on sexual content, often teetering the line of scandalous and disturbing that would put Euphoria’s penchant for nudity to shame. One representative tells Rolling Stone, “It was like any rape fantasy that any toxic man would have in the show—and then the woman comes back for more because it makes her music better.” Needless to say, the hype slowly tuned into hesitation the moment the story dropped—but many Levinson-Tesfaye believers still wanted to give it a shot.
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The critics’ voice
Fast forward to a few months later, The Idol makes its first premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Sam Levinson, The Weeknd, Lily Rose-Depp, BLACKPINK’s Jennie and Troye Sivan are in attendance for the red carpet and photocall. Those in attendance reported that the first two episodes received a five-minute standing ovation. The length is supposedly a standard in the festival, which probably meant the people didn’t like it and applauded out of courtesy—even if Sam Levinson’s tear-streaked face suggests otherwise.
As independent reviews continue to appear, publications like Rolling Stone, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter insist that The Idol is worse than we expected. And that’s judgment from two episodes alone. The critics believe that the output fully confirms the allegations and claims made in the Rolling Stone piece, despite all the flowers The Weeknd and Sam Levinson received. Reviews reference a graphic, 10-minute scene between Depp’s Jocelyn and Tesfaye’s Tedros that involves obscene, dirty talk (by extension, bad dialogue) and things getting way too NSFW—even for streaming shows. It’s a scene that supposedly adds little to no value to Jocelyn’s inner turmoil as a human-behind-a-pop-star-job and how Tedros can help her through it.
For those curious about BLACKPINK’s Jennie, attendees say that the K-pop star plays Dyanne, backup dancer and right-hand to Depp’s Jocelyn. Spoiler alert: she might be the new pop star set to replace Jocelyn when the rebrand doesn’t work out. While her screen time is significantly short in those two episodes, many BLINKs are holding on to the fact that if the narrative is subpar, we have her acting debut worth zeroing in on.
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In recent years, society hasn’t shied away from talking about taboos. We all witnessed the shift as we openly consume and critique scandalous content meant to question things in place. But in the case of The Idol, a show meant to be a satirical look at how a pop star’s humanity and personality as products, relies on intention to make the questionable excusable. It’s hard to feel like they’re trying to make a solid critique of human commodification in a post-#MeToo world when at the helm of it all is Sam Levinson, a man who has a thing for gratuitous nudity previously flagged in Euphoria, and The Weeknd, whose misogynist lyrics are often veiled by smooth instrumentals like a Trojan horse.
Regardless, people still try to hold out that The Idol will transform mid-way. Maybe the plot and commentary will develop by episode three. But with the questionable controversies surrounding The Idol and its showrunners, it begs the question: will you still be tuning in? Is it a show worth saying, “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it?”
Well, the world will know when it premieres on June 4.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver