What happened to The Idol?: a timeline
Sam Levinson, The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp created a new and salacious Hollywood drama. But how did it become so controversial?
Some dark hope remained for The Idol, the latest project by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson – collaborating with rapper-turned-producer Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye and nightclub proprietor Reza Fahim.
The first two episodes screened at the Grand Théâtre Lumière on 22 May, showing the story of Britney-like pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny) and her pursuit of mega-stardom. She navigates a nervous breakdown, a leaked image of semen on her face, and a new sexual tryst with the ‘rapey’ nightclub manager/cult leader Tedros (Tesfaye).
The series also stars Dan Levy (Schitt's Creek), Hank Azaria (Hello Tomorrow!), Jennie Kim (Blackpink), Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Only Murders in the Building), Rachel Senott (Bodies Bodies Bodies, Shiva Baby), Jane Adams (Hacks), and Suzanna Son (Red Rocket).
The Idol was already on people’s minds after an incendiary article about the production by Rolling Stone (more on that later). Maybe it’d be the dark horse of the festival, the one to unleash hate and nausea while the freaks danced in ritualistic reverie? Nope: no walk-outs, no boos, no protests – the episodes even received a five-minute standing ovation.
The deterrence came from the critics, most of whom tore the series apart. And whereas it’s wise never to trust unanimity in praise, it’s worth paying attention when there’s a mostly negative consensus.
Iana Murray for British GQ called The Idol ‘a vapid chasm that’s not nearly as daring as it proclaims itself to be’, dismissing the intimate scenes as ‘the seedy fantasy of the average PornHub viewer’. ‘[C]olossally gormless,’ wrote Robbie Collin in The Telegraph, giving the episodes one star. He goes on: ‘congratulations to the screenwriters for finding the one area in which the argument for women’s bodily autonomy overlaps with the interests of boggle-eyed lechers.’
Stephanie Zacharek in TIME: ‘presented with a kind of shockeroo enlightened knowingness that pretends to expose exploitation even while revelling in it.’ Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter: ‘It makes you wonder if in trying so hard to be transgressive, the show ultimately becomes regressive.’ Variety’s Peter Debruge goes as far as to call Levinson ‘shameful’ for his treatment of Lily-Rose Depp’s character.
These reviews deflated much of this writer's already-dying excitement. If the critics hate it and there's no outrage from the audience, how good can it be?
The bad press isn't surprising either. Season two of Euphoria – Levinson's high-budget, hyper-stylised teen drama – was marred by rumours of clashes with fan-favourite Barbie Ferreira as well as uncomfortable negotiations of nudity by Sydney Sweeney (recently seen in Reality), Chloe Cherry, Martha Kelly and Minka Kelly. However, Euphoria (despite its hate-watching detractors) was and is revolutionary in its honest depictions of abuse, addiction, mental health, LGBT+ relationships, and zoomer existentialism.
The Idol seemed like a sure thing, an exciting shot of hedonistic adrenaline in a bleak satire of modern Hollywood. What went wrong? Well, let's have a look at the timeline…
Left to right: Dyanne (Jennie Ruby Jane), Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), Xander (Troye Sivan) and Leia (Rachel Sennott). Photo: Sky/HBO
The Idol timeline
HBO announce that The Idol is in development. Tesfaye, Levinson and Fahim are listed as writers, creators and exec-producers of the series.
Deadline reports that Lily-Rose Depp will be in a starring role.
Production starts with Amy Seimetz (She Dies Tomorrow, The Girlfriend Experience) directing six episodes. Red Rocket actress Suzanna Son is announced to star as one of Tedros’s cult members.
Seimetz leaves The Idol after a major creative overhaul. Levinson replaces her. Suzanna Son is 'not expected to return'. Deadline report that Tesfaye ‘felt the show was leaning too much into the “female perspective”’. (Yes, of course, because there just aren’t enough shows and movies told from a man’s point-of-view…)
Suzanna Son in The Idol. Photo: Sky/HBO
The first teaser trailer for The Idol is released, boasting of the ‘sick and twisted minds’ of Levinson and Tesfaye.
The second teaser trailer is released. The tagline starts: ‘From the gutters of Hollywood…’ Suzanna Son is credited.
The third teaser is released, with Tesfaye’s character going full Christian Grey: ‘I need full control, no matter f***ing what.’
Rolling Stone’s damning report is published, alleging a chaotic production process after Seimetz’s exit in April 2022.
Apparently, between $54 and $75 million had already been spent and 80% of the series had been completed before Levinson ‘rewrote and reshot’ everything. According to sources: many members of Seizmet’s crew didn’t return, Levinson was a creative tyrant with HBO executives, and the original message was ‘chipped away’: ‘it was a show about a woman who was finding herself sexually, turned into a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it.’
Considering Seizmet's departure, Tesfaye’s rumoured anti-female gaze approach and the reviews flooding out of Cannes, this dubious change-up is far from inconceivable.
Hours after the article is published, Tesfaye takes to Twitter and posts a clip from The Idol with Tedros, Jocelyn and a publicist (played by Dan Levy). Tedros and Jocelyn describe Rolling Stone as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘past its prime’. The tweet reads ‘.@RollingStone did we upset you?’
Dan Levy in The Idol. Photo: Sky/HBO
The Idol is announced to be premiering Out of Competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2023.
The Rolling Stone piece is amended to include a statement from Depp. This said that Levinson is ‘the best director’ she’s ever worked with and that she had never ‘felt more supported or respected in a creative space, my input and opinions more valued.’
Tesfaye is profiled by Vanity Fair. He described the Rolling Stone article as ‘ridiculous’. He claimed to have ‘really loved working with Amy’ and that her exit was due to ‘logistical difficulties’. Seimetz hasn’t yet commented publicly about the overhaul.
Hank Azaria in The Idol. Photo: Sky/HBO
The Idol premieres at Cannes, receiving a five-minute standing ovation. Levinson emotionally addresses the audience: ‘I am incredibly proud of this show, and I’m proud of the way we made this show…I feel like I gained a family…I know that sounds a little culty but that’s the way it feels.’
At the Cannes press conference, Levinson describes how the Rolling Stone article made him believe The Idol would be ‘the biggest show of the summer’.
On 1 June, BBN Times cite a Google Search report by JeffBet revealing that search interest for The Idol rose 1,134% after its Cannes premiere.
Episode one of The Idol airs on 4 June, receiving 913,000 viewers on HBO and Max (Variety).
Containing a controversial sex scene between Jocelyn and Tedros, episode two airs on 11 June. Viewers dip to 800,000 (Variety).
In an interview with GQ published on 13 June, Tesfaye ‘laughs’ at the controversy and claims there’s ‘nothing sexy’ about episode two’s sex scene.
Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) in The Idol episode 2. Photo: Sky/HBO
Using an anonymous source, Page Six reports on 15 June that Tesfaye is ‘not planning a second season’. Other show sources claim that working with Tesfaye was ‘not an ideal experience’ and that he was ‘egomaniacal’. A source from HBO says ‘The only person who makes the decision [about a second season] is the head of HBO, Casey Bloys, and he is optimistic.’ HBO PR responded on X (then known as Twitter): ‘It is being misreported that a decision on a second season of The Idol has been determined. It has not’.
On 16 June, intimacy co-ordinator Marci Liroff is interviewed by Variety. She discusses a scene in which Jocelyn’s own intimacy co-ordinator is locked in a bathroom by manager Chaim (Hank Azaria). Liroff felt ‘appalled’ and ‘betrayed that they were making fun of us and the job.’ However, she does concede that it was a ‘very accurate – although heightened and extreme – depiction of some of the crazy pushback I’ve experienced’.
Episode three airs on 18 June.
Episode four airs on 25 June.
In an interview with Vogue Australia on 28 June, Depp reiterates that she ‘never felt more respected and more safe on a set’ and that ‘when it comes to the nudity and the risqué nature of the role, that to me was really intentional’.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Destiny. Photo: Sky/HBO
In a Variety interview on 29 June, Da’Vine Joy Randolph reveals that her character – Jocelyn’s manager Destiny – was added to Levinson’s version of the script. Discussing the Rolling Stone article, she claims ‘in my experience, when Sam came on to direct, that was not the experience that I had or bore witness to other people having.’ When discussing a potential second season, Randolph says ‘I think that everyone’s intention is to have a second season. This was never intended to be a limited series. HBO has been very happy with it’.
Moses Sumney as Izaak. Photo: Sky/HBO
In a Variety interview on 30 June, actor and musician Moses Sumney (who plays Izaak) says of the Rolling Stone report: ‘I don’t necessarily think that everything [in the article] is true’. He claims that it’s ‘really early to say if there’s gonna be a second season or not’, but he specifies: ‘When I signed on to The Idol I thought it was a limited series. And so I have no idea. Now people are like, “There’s only five episodes?!” And I’m like, “It was always only five episodes.”’
An LA Times article, published on 30 June, cites a report from Parrot Analytics that claims audience demand for The Idol is 20 times higher than the average TV series. ‘Traditional ratings have been dismal, which suggests that people are more interested in posting about how bad The Idol is than they are in actually watching it.’
The finale airs on 2 July.
Jane Adams as Nikki. Photo: Sky/HBO
In her profile for Vanity Fair on 3 July, actor Jane Adams (who plays record label executive Nikki) addresses The Idol’s controversial reception by reiterating that she and her co-stars felt safe during the shoot. ‘I especially want to say to all the feminists, “Go f*** yourself.” All these women that I’m working with are talking about their experience and you’re not listening. You’re not listening!’ The article also says she’s ‘hopeful about a second season’.
News on The Idol rested soundly for a few weeks… until 28 August. HBO announce that the series has been cancelled. As reported in Vanity Fair, a spokesperson said: ‘After much thought and consideration, HBO, as well as the creators and producers, have decided not to move forward with a second season. We’re grateful to the creators, cast, and crew for their incredible work.’
So much money, hype and fury – culminating in just another cancelled TV show.
The Idol is available to watch on NOW. Watch the official trailer below.