Here's everything to know about the controversy surrounding the Sam Levinson-directed drama series, which stars The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp
HBO's The Idol has been making headlines.
The music industry drama was first announced in June 2021 and stars Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a rising pop star who starts a romance with an enigmatic Los Angeles club owner and underground cult leader, Tedros, played by Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye.
The series marks the first major acting role for the "Blinding Lights" singer, who previously appeared in 2019's Uncut Gems. In addition, The Weeknd created the show with his producing partner, former nightlife entrepreneur Reza Fahim, and Euphoria visionary Sam Levinson.
Levinson's involvement in the project increased after HBO announced in April 2022 that The Idol, initially slated for a six-episode run, would receive a total overhaul. The release timeline was pushed back, several crew members left and Levinson stepped into the role of director.
In March 2023, Rolling Stone published an exposé featuring investigative reports from production members about the toxic set environment and creative clashes, further sparking controversy and uncertainty surrounding the project. Allegations detailed how the production went "wildly, disgustingly off the rails."
At the time, production sources told the outlet that they, too, were in the dark on various show details — including the timeline and what the final version of The Idol would look like. One source described it as a "sh-- show" in the wake of the various delays, reshoots and rewrites.
Meanwhile, HBO called The Idol one of the network’s “most exciting and provocative original programs,” in a statement to Rolling Stone, adding, “the creative team has been committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment, and last year, the team made creative changes they felt were in the best interest of both the production and the cast and crew.”
Several of the drama's cast members — including Depp and The Weeknd — also responded to the criticism of The Idol ahead of its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023.
Here's everything to know about the controversy surrounding The Idol.
When did The Idol controversy begin?
The Idol was first announced in June 2021 and began production soon after. Nearly a year later, Deadline reported on April 25 that major changes were being made to the series' cast, crew and the "creative vision" of the show.
“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. We look forward to sharing more information soon,” an HBO spokeswoman told Deadline at the time.
While the major switch-up was the first sign of "a particularly unusual move for the network," as described by Deadline, it wasn't until Rolling Stone reported on clashes and alleged toxicity on set following director Amy Seimetz's departure that widespread concern sparked.
The outlet's exposé — published on March 1, 2023 — featured interviews from 13 unnamed members of the show's cast and crew about the alleged drastic story changes.
Meanwhile, HBO denied the accusations in a statement to PEOPLE, stating, "The initial approach on the show and production of the early episodes, unfortunately, did not meet HBO standards so we chose to make a change."
Why did director Amy Seimetz exit The Idol?
One day after Deadline reported that substantial changes were being made on The Idol, the outlet reported that its director, Amy Seimetz — who was slated to helm all episodes of the music-focused series — exited the project.
At the time, no explanation was given as to why she left The Idol — which according to Variety, had reportedly already filmed footage for multiple episodes that had to be "redone." Per Deadline, The Weeknd — who co-created the series — was "unhappy with the creative direction of the show."
Sources told the outlet that the crux of the issue appeared to stem from The Weeknd, who "felt the show was leaning too much into a 'female perspective'" with costar Depp’s character "rather than his own."
In addition to Seimetz's exit, other high-profile crew members followed suit. On April 27, Suzanna Son, who was set to play a cult member in the series, left the drama.
With Seimetz out, Deadline reported that Sam Levinson would have "more of a role" in directing the HBO series. (IndieWire claimed Seimetz was not set to direct the final episode from the get-go due to scheduling issues.)
According to Rolling Stone's investigation, production delays on The Idol were in part due to Levinson "scrapping the nearly-finished $54-75 million project to rewrite and reshoot the entire thing."
“What I signed up for was a dark satire of fame and the fame model in the 21st century,” one production member told the outlet. “It went from satire to the thing it was satirizing.”
“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,” another production member told Rolling Stone of Levinson’s version.
Has The Weekend responded to The Idol controversy?
Neither Levinson nor The Weeknd responded to Rolling Stone's requests for comment prior to publishing the exposé; however, The Weeknd called out the outlet immediately after it was posted. He uploaded a clip from The Idol on Twitter, writing, “Rolling Stone did we upset you?”
The "Blinded By the Lights" singer further shared his thoughts on the exposé when speaking with Vanity Fair for a cover story published in May. “I thought the article was ridiculous. I wanted to give a ridiculous response to it,” he said.
In the cover story, he also acknowledged Seimetz's exit and clarified that he "really loved working" with her. "I’m sure she’s reading all this being like, ‘Why am I being thrown into this?'” he questioned.
The Weeknd recognized The Idol's controversy and dark topics explored when speaking with the New York Times ahead of the show's release and said that viewers "just need to see the whole show” in order to understand it. He also compared it to his work as a musician.
“When I first started making music, it was the exact same thing,” The Weeknd told the outlet. “It was provocative, and I knew it was going to be tough for people. And a lot of people didn’t like it. Not to compare it, but I feel that this is kind of like that again. This is not going to be for everybody, and that’s fine. We’re not politicians.”
Has Lily-Rose Depp responded to The Idol controversy?
Amid Rolling Stone's report surrounding Levinson's new direction for the series, Depp defended her director. "Sam is, for so many reasons, the best director I have ever worked with," the actress said in a statement to PEOPLE in March 2023.
"Never have I felt more supported or respected in a creative space, my input and opinions more valued," she continued. "Working with Sam is a true collaboration in every way — it matters to him, more than anything, not only what his actors think about the work, but how we feel performing it."
She concluded: "He hires people whose work he esteems and has always created an environment in which I felt seen, heard, and appreciated."
"I don't think anybody went full method — nobody lost their minds," Depp told the outlet. "Well, sometimes when Abel would get — I don't want to reveal too much about where Abel's character goes, but when he would be in full Tedros mode sometimes, I would steer clear of him. I'd be like, 'He's in his zone right now.'"
However, she noted that "the vibe on set was quite lighthearted." Depp told EW, "We're all really good friends and we all are similar people and really understand each other." She added, “We were having a lot of laughs, listening to a lot of music, dancing around, and that kind of energy is what made the heavier moments easier and possible."
Depp told the NYT, “We always knew that we were going to make something that was going to be provocative and perhaps not for everyone."
"That was a draw for all of us,” Depp continued. “I don’t think any of us were interested in making anything that was going to be, you know, fun for the whole family.”
What has director Sam Levinson said about The Idol controversy?
In response to the Rolling Stone article calling Levinson's The Idol a "a rape fantasy," the director called specifics in the exposé "completely foreign.”
When speaking at a Cannes press conference, he said, “When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I just said, ‘I think that we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’”
When the NYT asked Levinson if he worries how the show will be received — given that larger discussions about race, gender and representation are so fraught right now — he said "that's what makes it exciting."
Levinson added, "That these discussions are fraught. I think running headfirst into that fire is what thrills us all."
What is The Idol rated?
The series is rated TV-MA, with IMDb noting "sex & nudity, violence & gore, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking" throughout.
In a PEOPLE review of The Idol, the first hour-long episode was described as "kinky yet empty, like a visit to a red-light district during the pandemic." The HBO drama sees a great deal of nudity, like Depp's Jocelyn — who "bares her breasts during a photo shoot" and "arouses herself with asphyxiation."
The review also points out that one of the "most disturbing moments" of the show comes when Jocelyn permits The Weeknd's Tedros, a then-stranger to the pop star, to nearly smother her.
Depp — who told the NYT that she's "comfortable performing in that way" — explained that her explicit behaviors "informed the character." “I believe people will underestimate Jocelyn as a character because of how exposed she is," Levinson added.
Has The Idol been canceled?
Amid widespread criticism of the show's provocative scenes, the Parents Television and Media Council called on HBO to cancel the series, citing its depiction of “torture porn” and “sexual abuse,” per The Wrap.
This came after a previous report that the show would not return for a second season, which HBO later refuted on social media. "It is being misreported that a decision on a second season of The Idol has been determined. It has not, and we look forward to sharing the next episode with you Sunday night," the tweet read.
Even so, speculation about the show's future continued to rise after the series, which was originally given a six-episode order, announced that episode 5 would serve as the season finale.
During an interview with Variety, Da’Vine Joy Randolph set the record straight, saying, “I think that everyone’s intention is to have a second season. This was never intended to be a limited series. Nothing is official, but HBO is quite happy.”
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