The Weeknd in HBO's 'The Idol'

Sam Levinson and the Weeknd’s New HBO Series Really Does Sound Like a ‘Sh-tshow’

Following the massive success of Euphoria‘s first season, HBO happily hitched itself to creator Sam Levinson’s glitter-bombed wagon. In addition to greenlighting a second season of Euphoria, the network signed on for The Idol, a collaboration between Levinson and The Weeknd that promised to explore the dark side of fame. First announced in 2021, The Idol has endured a lengthy production marred by the suspicious exit of director Amy Seimetz and, now, troubling reports from people close to production—one of whom referred to the series as “a shitshow.”

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Rolling Stone published a lengthy report on the goings-on behind the scenes of The Idol, which stars Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye as a cult leader and Lily-Rose Depp as a young pop star who falls under his spell. HBO describes the series as “the sleaziest love story in Hollywood,” while the brief teasers have done little to elaborate on the narrative. Multiple sources close to production told Rolling Stone that Levinson has rewritten and reshot the majority of The Idol, with at least one crew member describing the new version as a “rape fantasy.”

Levinson co-created The Idol with Tesfaye and the latter’s production partner, Reza Fahim. The three co-wrote the six-episode series alongside Joe Epstein and Mary Laws (Succession). Amy Seimetz was hired to direct all six episodes even though the scripts were not yet complete, and, according to multiple sources, was encouraged by HBO to write the finale and “put her stamp on the show.” For a director whose credits include the critically acclaimed series The Girlfriend Experience (based on Steven Soderbergh’s film of the same name) and the indie psychological thrillers Sun Don’t Shine and She Dies Tomorrow, that stamp would’ve undoubtedly been female-centric.

Production on the series began in late 2021. In April 2022, during a scheduled hiatus, Seimetz exited the series and Levinson—who just completed production on Euphoria season 2—took over. Deadline reported that Tesfaye wasn’t happy with the “female perspective” of The Idol and wanted the series to focus more on his character, a charismatic cult leader. Rolling Stone‘s report seems to corroborate this, as the original version of the series is described as “a layered narrative that was driving home a message about the trappings and exploitations of fame,” while the Levinson Cut, as it were, became “a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it.”

HBO maintained that the series was being “creatively revamped.” Some cast members, including Suzanna Son (Red Rocket), weren’t invited back for reshoots. Production is said to have become a “shitshow,” with ceaseless rewrites and senseless changes to minor things like character names. When filming resumed in the summer of 2022, many of the original crew members chose not to return to a production one person called “really tough, very scarring.”

Many accused the production of being horrendously unorganized and chaotic, with another telling Rolling Stone, “I was so drained by the end of it. I was like, ‘I can’t have a job make me cry every day because I have two hours to sleep, and I’m being pulled 100 directions because nobody knows what they’re doing, or nobody knows what they want because we don’t know what we’re filming.” This isn’t the first time a Sam Levinson Joint™️ has made headlines for production problems: In February 2022, The Daily Beast ran a story about similarly fraught conditions on the set of Euphoria season 2.

Sources from The Idol set described two particularly disturbing scenes that were written by Levinson but ultimately scrapped. One crew member referred to the content as “sexual torture porn”:

In one draft episode, there allegedly was a scene where Tesfaye bashes in Depp’s face, and her character smiles and asks to be beaten more, giving Tesfaye an erection. (This scene was never shot, the source says.) Another proposed scenario was for Depp to carry an egg in her vagina and if she dropped or cracked the egg, Tesfaye’s character would refuse to “rape” her — which sent Depp’s character into a spiral, begging him to “rape” her because she believed he was the key to her success. (This scene also was not filmed because production couldn’t find a way to realistically shoot the scene without having Depp physically insert the egg, another source explains.) 

“Without having Depp physically insert the egg” is a line I am unlikely to forget in my lifetime. Much of what is being described, plot-wise, doesn’t sound all that dissimilar from what we’ve seen in Euphoria and Levinson’s divisive debut feature, Assassination Nation. Not having narrative context for what is being described makes it difficult to assess whether The Idol has become as “hollow” as some sources claim.

That said, The Weeknd’s response to Rolling Stone on Twitter is the sort of edgelord behavior Levinson’s work is often accused of emulating—and it’s not exactly helping:

Honestly, that clip just makes me annoyed that they roped Dan Levy into this nonsense.

(featured image: HBO)

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Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.