The Controversy Behind ‘The Idol’

Sam Levinson has been known to push the limits with his cast members (see: Barbie Ferreira, Sydney Sweeney, and Minka Kelly in Euphoria). But the creator finds himself at the center of controversy yet again after Rolling Stone published an exposé about alleged drama troubling the production of his forthcoming HBO series The Idol. The show was announced back in November 2021 and generated significant media attention attributed to the fact that it was co-created by Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye (who is also set to star in the show) with a cast that included big names like pop star Troye Sivan and Lily-Rose Depp. More star power was added later with the likes of Dan Levy, singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, Blackpink’s Jennie, Hank Azaria, Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Rachel Sennott, and record producer Mike Dean. As updates and two teaser trailers trickled out, would-be viewers have eagerly awaited the announcement of a release date that has yet to come.

With the publication of Rolling Stone’s damning report, much of the public sentiment has shifted from excitement to wariness. The magazine spoke to 13 crew members who claimed that the show was originally set to be a feminist look at how the entertainment industry takes advantage of women but was subjected to a total overhaul in April 2022 when the original director, Amy Seimetz, left due to contractual obligations for a different project. Levinson and Tesfaye took over and created what one source described to the magazine as “a rape fantasy” that “went from satire to the thing it was satirizing.”

After the story was published, The Weeknd responded on social media with a clip that appears to be from the show, with many criticizing the response as “misguided.”

Here’s what to know about the Rolling Stone exposé and the Internet drama that occurred swiftly following its publication.

Why was The Idol delayed?

According to Rolling Stone, Seimetz’s version was originally centered around “a troubled starlet falling victim to a predatory industry figure and fighting to reclaim her own agency.” The Atlanta and The Girlfriend Experience director had completed around 80% of the series, and around $54 to $75 million had been sunk into the project, the publication reports. But the story alleges that the production was troubled from the start, held up due to multiple script rewrites, reshoots, and other sorts of delays, on top of “near-impossible expectations from HBO.”

Crew members told the publication that Seimetz was “set up to fail” and that they felt bad for her. One person who worked on the project told Rolling Stone, “Amy was doing her best in an impossible situation, but she was going to lose this no matter what. Honestly, I think HBO handed her a sh-t stack.” Seimetz was already signed on for an acting gig in Netflix’s DC Comics show Sweet Tooth. According to the publication, there were plans in place to have another director step in for the finale, with Seimetz fulfilling her post-production duties in New Zealand while she shot the show. But in April 2022, the show was completely overhauled, and Levinson took over.

The new story of The Idol

With the production scrapped, Levinson and Tesfaye took over to create what entertainment reporter Cheyenne Roundtree describes as “a degrading love story with a hollow message that some crew members describe as being offensive.” One crew member told the publication, “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.” Tesfaye was named as one of the reasons for the show’s overhaul, a report from Deadline says, because it focused too much on Depp’s starlet character. One source who spoke to Rolling Stone supported the claim that Tesfaye was to blame for the restructuring and wanted to “tone down the cult aspect of the storyline and pivot into something else entirely, dropping the ‘feminist lens’ through which the show was being told as a result.”

Rolling Stone also wrote that Levinson’s version includes more disturbing sexual content and nudity—one of the more graphic scenes that were scrapped involved Tesfaye’s character physically assaulting Depp’s character, and she was supposed to smile and “ask for more,” giving Tesfaye’s character an erection. Crew members were shocked when they read the script, describing some of the scenes as “sexual torture porn,” the publication says.

The power of Euphoria

There’s no doubt that Levinson holds sway at HBO following two successful seasons of Euphoria, which has garnered four Emmy Awards and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, an average of 16.3 million viewers throughout the second season. His show has become a hit among Gen Z viewers, whose attention streamers and TV networks have been seeking to pull away from short-form content on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube. According to the production crew, Levinson seemingly recognized that power when creating The Idol.

“I got the vibe that the mood on set was, ‘What’s HBO gonna do, pull the plug? Yeah, right. If they want a third season of Euphoria, they’ll give me what I want… We’re just gonna shoot what we want and if [HBO execs] have a problem with it, that’s their problem,’” one crew member told Rolling Stone. Euphoria is set to come back for a third season. However, there hasn’t been an official announcement on when it is set to air or when it will begin filming.

The Controversy Behind 'The Idol'

How the creators have responded

After the story was published, Tesfaye, who did not offer comment for the story, responded to Rolling Stone with a clip that looks to be from the show in which Tesfaye and Depp’s characters sit down with Levy’s character to discuss the possibility of shooting a cover for Rolling Stone. Tesfaye’s character called the publication “irrelevant.” He tweeted out the video with the caption, “@RollingStone, did we upset you?”

The response to this video was largely negative. One person quote-tweeted the tweet and wrote, “Mind you, all Rolling Stone did was publish an article on the clearly toxic workplace environment Sam Levinson created so your shade is misguided Mr. Tesfaye.”

Another person responded by saying, “Not only is this a hall of fame terrible way to respond to an exposé about you, but the scene shows these two supposedly Hollywood-savvy Instagram model characters turning down a magazine cover which is… not realistically what Hollywood-savvy Instagram models would do.”

Levinson and HBO have not commented publicly on the situation following the release of the Rolling Stone exposé.

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