The Idol Is Already Shaping Up To Be 2023's Most Controversial TV Show – This Is Why

Here's why The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp's new show has already got the whole world talking.
Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd in publicity photos for The Idol
Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd in publicity photos for The Idol

HBO’s music industry drama The Idol is shaping up to be one of the most talked-about TV shows of the year – just probably not for the reasons producers were hoping for.

The controversial series stars Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a young pop star making her way back into the spotlight after a very public breakdown.

When she meets Tedros – a shady manager-producer-cult leader type played by The Weeknd (who uses his real name, Abel Tesfaye, for the show), her comeback plans become seriously derailed.

The opening episodes of the series premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month, with the first debuting here in the UK earlier this week.

After its Cannes premiere, the show garnered some seriously mixed reviews, with many critics highlighting the show’s sex scenes and graphic drug use.

But it’s not just the plot that has polarised viewers – the furore around The Idol goes much further back...

Production delays

When The Idol was first announced back in June 2021, it seemed to have all the makings of another HBO must-watch, thanks to the buzzy names attached to the series.

The Weeknd was revealed to be collaborating with his creative partner Reza Fahim and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson to produce a drama exploring the darker side of the music industry, with Lily-Rose on board as its lead and the Can’t Feel My Face singer himself starring opposite her.

Jocelyn and Tedros dance together in the first episode of The Idol
Jocelyn and Tedros dance together in the first episode of The Idol

The following year, in April 2022, it was announced the drama’s original director, Amy Seimetz, would be leaving the project, after much of the show had already been shot.

HBO confirmed the news in a statement, explaining that The Idol’s creative team had “aligned on a new creative direction” and that the production would be “adjusting its cast and crew accordingly to best serve this new approach”, with Levinson stepping in to serve as director as well as a co-producer.

A report from Deadline claimed that The Weeknd had been “unhappy” with the direction the show had taken, believing it to be focusing on the “female perspective” too much, prioritising Lily-Rose’s character.

He later refuted this in an interview with Vanity Fair, dismissing suggestions he “wanted to be the star” and insisting that the show’s story is still very much told from Jocelyn’s perspective.

The Rolling Stone bombshell

In March 2023, the controversy stepped up a gear when Rolling Stone published a bombshell report, claiming that the show had gone “wildly, disgustingly off the rails”.

After speaking to 13 sources involved in production on The Idol, the magazine alleged that Levinson had scrapped most of the initial version of the show, resulting in extensive reshoots. One source even went as far as claiming that, under the Euphoria director, the tone of the show had shifted into “sexual torture porn”.

Production was beset by extensive rewrites and delays, Rolling Stone claimed, with some crew members especially critical of Levinson.

The Weeknd plays Tedros in The Idol
The Weeknd plays Tedros in The Idol

The cast responds

Addressing the report, Lily-Rose released a statement in March standing by Levinson, describing him as “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,” she added. “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.”

HBO, meanwhile, said that “the initial approach on the show and production of the early episodes, unfortunately, did not meet HBO standards”, and stressed that The Idol’s team had been “committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment”.

When The Weeknd waded into the controversy, though, his response arguably fanned the flames further, sharing a clip from the series on Twitter in which some of the characters call Rolling Stone’s relevancy into question.

The mixed reviews

When the show finally premiered at Cannes last month, it received a five-minute standing ovation. That might sound like a decent reception, but in Cannes terms, it’s actually pretty much the standard.

As the first reviews rolled in from the festival, the series initially received an unenviable 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, although this has since risen to 27% as more critics have published their own takes.

Variety said that the show plays out “like a sordid male fantasy”, while The Hollywood Reporter wondered “if in trying so hard to be transgressive, the show ultimately becomes regressive”.

Abel Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp pose together on the set of The Idol
Abel Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp pose together on the set of The Idol

In a one-star review, The Telegraph branded the series “a new low for HBO”, claiming that any attempts to skewer the music industry fall flat. “If there was ever any satirical or cautionary element in this story of a young woman being chewed up by the game machine, it’s nowhere to be seen,” critic Robbie Collin wrote.

Some reviewers did single out Lily-Rose’s performance as a highlight, though, with Deadline describing her work as “riveting”.

The explicit content

Just one episode in and the show’s explicit scenes have already generated plenty of discussion online, with many critics branding some of the on-screen nudity gratuitous.

One storyline in the opening instalment sees Jocelyn deciding she wants to appear topless in a photo-shoot, with her manager (played by Hank Azaria) going as far as locking the set’s intimacy coordinator in the bathroom so that she can do so.

Lily-Rose Depp in the opening scene of The Idol
Lily-Rose Depp in the opening scene of The Idol

Elsewhere in the episode, Jocelyn becomes the victim of revenge porn, with one scene involving photos of certain body fluids on the character’s face.

And if this didn’t already sound like A Lot, the season premiere also features a masturbation scene involving ice cubes, not to mention numerous scenes depicting drug use.

With five more episodes to go, it seems like the controversy around the show won’t be disappearing any time soon. Brace yourselves for more feverish debate (and if you want to watch it for yourself, you can watch weekly instalments on Sky Atlantic and Now, dropping on Mondays).

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