2023 already has a contender for most controversial show of the year, and it's one that hasn't aired a single episode.
It's called The Idol, and it's the new HBO series from Sam Levinson, creator of the wildly popular high school drama Euphoria. "Set against the backdrop of the music industry," the show "centers on a self-help guru and leader of a modern-day cult," played by The Weeknd, "who develops a complicated relationship with an up-and-coming pop idol," played by Lily-Rose Depp, per HBO. The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, is also the co-creator.
But a recent report suggested the series has had a messy production and that Levinson's scripts contained disturbing, offensive content, leading him to draw social media ire — and not for the first time.
Why has there been controversy surrounding 'The Idol'?
The behind-the-scenes drama first began bubbling up in April 2022 after Amy Seimetz, who was set to direct all six episodes of The Idol and serve as executive producer, left the show.
At the time, Variety reported that even though production was "already completed on multiple episodes," they would "now be redone" following a "change in creative directions." The "crux of the issue appears to be that" Tesfaye felt the show was "leaning too much into a 'female perspective,'" said Deadline.
In March 2023, Rolling Stone provided more details, citing 13 sources in the cast and crew who alleged the production has been a "s--tshow" due to "delays, reshoots, and rewrites." After Seimetz's departure, Levinson reportedly took over as director, scrapped "the nearly-finished $54-75 million project," and reshot it all. Sources told the outlet he dialed up the "disturbing sexual content and nudity" and, in the process, strayed from what the show was originally about. "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," one source told Rolling Stone.
The article went on to describe "disturbing sexual and physically violent scenes" in Levinson's scripts. In one scene, Tesfaye reportedly "bashes in Depp's face, and her character smiles and asks to be beaten more, giving Tesfaye an erection," while in another, Depp's character begs Tesfaye's to "rape" her. So Rolling Stone's sources suggested Levinson was turning the series into a "rape fantasy" and "sexual torture porn," though neither of these scenes was reportedly shot, and the article noted it was unclear what would end up in the final product.
Levinson's other HBO show, Euphoria, has also attracted its fair share of controversy. Some fans criticized the creator after being unhappy with the direction certain characters' storylines took in the second season, and star Barbie Ferreira was rumored to have left the series due to a feud with Levinson. In 2022, sources alleged to The Daily Beast the show's production is "toxic" and that background actors complained about the working conditions, including long days that were blamed on Levinson not showing up with a shot list. There has also been scrutiny of Euphoria's use of graphic nudity, which some have called gratuitous.
What has the response been?
HBO said the "initial approach" to The Idol "did not meet HBO standards so we chose to make a change," but the network maintained the work environment was "safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful." Sources disputed aspects of Rolling Stone's report to Variety, saying the final product "still very much represents a 'female perspective'" and that "only the pilot was scrapped and reshot, not multiple episodes." TMZ also cited sources who insisted that Tesfaye never objected to the show's "female perspective," while an insider claimed to IndieWire that "Levinson took over as director to save the program's original vision."
In a statement, Depp defended Levinson as the "best director I have ever worked with." But the most controversial response came from Tesfaye. "@RollingStone did we upset you?" he tweeted along with a clip from The Idol where his character dismisses Rolling Stone as "irrelevant" and mocks its number of Instagram followers. "Responding to serious allegations with a corny video like this is just so disturbing and messed up," one person tweeted, while others mocked the scene's dialogue and performances. NBC's Kat Tenbarge called this a "hall of fame terrible way to respond to an exposé about you."
HBO hasn't said when The Idol will debut. But by the time it airs, the Don't Worry Darling rollout may look like smooth sailing by comparison.