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Dark Tales from HBO’s The Idol Set Raise More Red Flags About Sam Levinson

A new in-depth piece from Rolling Stone reveals details about the production’s toxic evolution.
  • Sam Levinson (Photo: JA/Everett Collection)
    Sam Levinson (Photo: JA/Everett Collection)

    Stories from the set of Sam Levinson and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye's The Idol reveal a tumultuous work environment. The first sign of trouble was in April 2022 when HBO announced the show was “adjusting its cast and crew” to take a “new creative direction” five months into production. An in-depth Rolling Stone article reveals that the new direction turned the series into “sexual torture porn” with “no message.”

    The Idol was marketed by HBO from the start as a show about a self-help guru/leader of a modern-day cult (Tesfaye) who develops a relationship with a pop superstar (Lily-Rose Depp). While Levinson was always on board as co-creator, implying this show would share DNA with Euphoria, Amy Seimetz (Atlanta, The Girlfriend Experience) was brought on to direct all six of the series’s episodes, framing the story through a more female lens. But according to Deadline, it was that bent toward the “female perspective” that prompted Tesfaye and Levinson to scrap Seimetz’s work — sources tell Rolling Stone the production was 80% complete — and put the series in Levinson’s hands instead.

    “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 anonymous production member told Rolling Stone.

    Once Levinson was behind the camera, he added more nudity and more of what some called “disturbing” sexual content. One scene that was written in but ultimately not filmed involved Depp’s character carrying an egg in her vagina, being threatened that if it was cracked Tesfaye’s character would refuse to sexually assault her — in this scenario, Depp’s character believes being sexually assaulted somehow leads to success. It’s hard to see scenes like this as anything other than an excuse to degrade a young woman and incite a stir about how “controversial” the show is.

    “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,” one production member said.

    It’s hardly the first time that Levinson’s been called out for oversexualizing his stories and creating a toxic environment on set. From the beginning, Euphoria has been criticized for its sexualization of teens. In Season 1 of the show, there were several instances of cast members like Sydney Sweeney, Chloe Cherry, Martha Kelly, and Minka Kelly asking Levinson to take out scenes of nudity because they felt uncomfortable or that the scenes went too far. Ultimately, Levinson complied and those actors defended the director, but that such graphic scenes would be written in in the first place is a red flag. However, he wasn’t as accommodating to requests from cast member Barbie Ferreira, who was rumored to have left the show in August 2022 because of disagreements about her character’s storyline which led to Levison giving Ferreira less and less screen time.

    Levinson seems in part to get away with this because on paper he's doing some things right. Both Euphoria and The Idol have intimacy coordinators on set, and Depp has praised him as "the best director" she's ever worked with. And unfortunately, all of this controversy often leads to high viewership — in February 2022, HBO reported that Euphoria was its second most-watched show. And star Zendaya continues to earn critical acclaim and prominent awards for her role. That success is likely why he was given free reign and a seemingly never-ending budget to completely rework The Idol.

    “This was such a strong example of just how far [Levinson] can really push HBO and they will continue to cover [him] because he brings in money,” a production member told Rolling Stone. “He’s able to walk away unscathed and everybody still wants to work with him… People ignore the red flags and follow him regardless.”

    A release date for The Idol has not yet been announced, with HBO promoting it as “Coming 2023.”

    Update (Wednesday, March 1 at 2:20 PM ET): In a statement to Primetimer, HBO representative said: "The creators and producers of The Idol have been working hard to create one of HBO’s most exciting and provocative original programs. 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. Throughout the process, 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. We look forward to sharing The Idol with audiences soon."

    The network also shared Lily-Rose Depp's full statement on the matter which reads, "Sam is, for so many reasons, the best director I have ever worked with. Never have I felt more supported or respected in a creative space, my input and opinions more valued. 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. He hires people whose work he esteems and has always created an environment in which I felt seen, heard, and appreciated.”  

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Sam Levinson, Euphoria, The Idol, Amy Seimetz, Barbie Ferreira, Chloe Cherry, Lily-Rose Depp, Martha Kelly, Minka Kelly, Sydney Sweeney, The Weeknd, Zendaya