Unpacking All the Drama Swirling Around The Idol

The Idol, starring Lily-Rose Depp as a pop star who falls under the sway of a Svengali played by The Weeknd, finally premieres on HBO June 4 following a report that the set was a hot mess.

By Natalie Finn Jun 04, 2023 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Lily-Rose Depp Sees The Weeknd As "Supportive Friend" Amid Filming The Idol

For starters, the stars of The Idol are singing its praises.

"We were all super-proud of this project and it feels like a really long time coming," Lily-Rose Depp told E! News, two days after the HBO series' May 22 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was met with a five-minute standing ovation. "To get to birth The Idol at a festival like Cannes is just a dream come true."

Added co-star Troye Sivan, "We had such a good time making it, so I think it was only appropriate and fair to send it off with a bang."

Off into the world, that is, after months of anticipation as to just how provocative the drama from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson would prove to be, the writer-producer-director not exactly known for restraint when depicting the raw side of human behavior.

And yet, the content of his new show—about Jocelyn, an adrift, increasingly self-destructive pop star (Depp) who falls under the thrall of Tedros, a manipulative club owner (played by The Weekend, who's also a series co-creator)—would have come in for scrutiny no matter what. Even HBO leaned in, billing The Idol as a story about the "sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood." But that's just marketing.

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Rather, what many critics admittedly lined up on the Croisette to see was the mature-audiences-only end result after a March Rolling Stone report alleged the production was riddled with issues, including a ballooning budget and questionable creative choices.

Which Levinson has since pushed back against but, in a way, also cheekily embraced.

Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

"When my wife read me the article," he told reporters in Cannes the day after the premiere, "I looked at her and I said, 'I think we're about to have the biggest show of the summer.'"

As the makers of Don't Worry Darling might venture, not all press is good press. And reviews of the first two episodes of The Idol range from Rolling Stone's observation (really doubling down on its previous reporting) that the series is "more toxic and way worse than you've heard" to Vanity Fair's take that it's trying really hard to be shocking, yet is "way too Top 40 to rattle the squares."

But people have been talking a lot about the first-ever TV show to premiere at Cannes (where, incidentally, a film starring Lily-Rose's dad, Johnny Depp, opened the whole festival). So before you judge for yourself whether The Idol deserves your loyalty, here's what everyone has been talking about:

How long has The Idol been in the works?

It was first reported in June 2021 that The Weekend (whose real name is Abel Tesfaye) had joined forces with Levinson and Reza Fahim to develop, write and produce a series at HBO about a troubled singer who gets into a relationship with a cult-leading nightclub owner.

The network greenlighted the drama in November 2021, with Francesca Orsi, executive vice president of HBO Programming, saying in a statement it "was clear their subversive, revelatory take on the cult of the music industry was unlike anything HBO had ever done before."


Depp was already attached to star opposite The Weeknd, and newly announced cast members included Sivan, Suzanna Son, Elizabeth Berkley and Anne Heche. (Berkley and Heche, who died last August, as well as some other actors from that initial crop, are still currently listed among the cast on IMDb but have not been in any of the trailers and do not appear to be part of the final incarnation of the show.)

Actress and filmmaker Amy Seimetz, whose experience behind the camera included The Girlfriend Experience and Atlanta, was on board to direct all six episodes.

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When and why did The Idol change course?

By April 2022, the series was in the throes of evolution.

"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," an HBO spokesperson told Deadline at the time. "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."

That report came April 25. The very next day, Deadline reported that Seimetz was leaving the production.

Sources told Variety that multiple episodes of the six that HBO had ordered had already been shot, but they'd be redone to take the show in a new creative direction.

Eddy Chen/HBO

The day after thatDeadine reported that cast member Suzanna Son was not going to be returning, either. (However, Son still has a designated character—Chloe, follower of Tedros—and has appeared in teaser footage.) At the time, sources told Deadline that The Weeknd had been unhappy with the creative direction the show was taking, that the story was being told too much from the "female perspective."

Meanwhile, Sivan, who plays Xander, Jocelyn's creative director, had already shared his thoughts—and he was delighted to be a part of it.

"I'm just having the best time," he gushed to W in a story published Feb. 22, 2022. The Idol marked his first role in a TV series and, he continued, "the quality of every single aspect of a production like this is so inspiring to watch. It's just a crazy experience, it's been so fun."

How did The Idol regroup?

An atmospheric teaser released in August 2022 introduced the likes of Dan Levy, Hank AzariaJane AdamsHari Neff, Jennie Ruby Jane, Moses Sumney, Eli Roth, Rachel Sennott, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Dean, and Ramsey as part of the ensemble along with Depp, The Weeknd, Sivan and Son.

There was still no premiere date, as yet, but there was content.

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What did the Rolling Stone report allege about the making of The Idol

The gist of the much-talked-about March 1, 2023, Rolling Stone story was that multiple people who worked on the production alleged they signed up for one thing—an intelligently crafted, boundary-pushing satire about fame, creativity, exploitation, power and sexuality—and ended up with something else.

And what they got, once Levinson became more hands-on after Seimetz's departure—according to one of the 13 unnamed sources who contributed to the piece—was "a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it." 

There was also logistical chaos throughout, the story alleged, with scripts being re-written constantly—"It was kind of a joke how many revisions there were," one production member noted—as filming stretched beyond a scheduled May-to-July 2022 window and into September. "A s--tshow," another source called it, while multiple people said they weren't even sure what would end up in the finished product. 

Eddy Chen/HBO

But the article also quoted sources who were supportive of the production, with one saying it "couldn't have been a better crew from my standpoint, from both Amy and in Sam's case across the board."

HBO defended it as well, stating in response to the story, "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."

They concluded, "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."

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Depp also denounced the complaints about Levinson, calling him "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," she continued in a statement obtained by E! News. "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."

More recently, Depp told E! that the cast "laughed so much" making what, from the footage available so far, looked to be a super-gritty show. 

"Even in the moments where the scene was heavier or more emotional," she said, "because we all had those genuine friendships, even those heavier moments felt lighter…There was a really good support system going on."

How did The Weeknd respond to the Rolling Stone story?

The "Blinding Lights" singer pushed back in a different way, tweeting at the publication, "did we upset you?"—along with a clip from The Idol in which Tedros calls Rolling Stone "irrelevant" and Jocelyn wonders if the mag is "past its prime" when her publicist pitches an opportunity to be on the cover. (Then Levy, who plays the publicist, got dragged by a faction of Twitter who had already decided the series was a toxic mess.)


The Weeknd, who shared the brunt of the criticism of what the show had supposedly become with Levinson, eventually said that he thought the article was "ridiculous." So, he explained for Vanity Fair's June 2023 cover story, "I wanted to give a ridiculous response to it." 

He "loved" working with Seimetz, he continued, but there were scheduling and other run-of-the-mill issues that led to the parting of the ways. "Shows get reshot every day."

Levinson concurred, telling the magazine in an email that he sat down with The Weeknd to watch what they had so far in early 2022 and "it wasn't working."

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The Weeknd also called it "a challenge to redo The Idol," telling W, "in truth, I sacrificed my health and home to make it work."

In fact, to save money, they did use his actual house when they resumed shooting.

"The bedrooms were now greenrooms; the bathrooms were for hair and makeup," he said. "We built a music studio in the basement so Mike Dean, who helped compose, and I could score the show while we were filming."

What has Sam Levinson said about The Idol backlash?

Levinson appeared in fine spirits after The Idol's Cannes premiere.

Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Recalling how his initial thought about the Rolling Stone article was that it would only make the series loom larger, he told reporters, "We know we're making a show that is provocative. It's not lost on us."

But the allegations in the story, he continued, "felt completely foreign to me. But I know who I am…People can write whatever they want. If I have a slight objection, it's that they intentionally omitted anything that didn't fit their narrative. But I think we have seen a lot of that lately."

Depp, who's been nothing but supportive of Levinson and The Weeknd, noted, "It's always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about someone you care about. It wasn't reflective at all of my experience."

Levinson maintained that he was "proud of this show, proud of how we made this show."

Where does Lily-Rose Depp stand with The Weeknd?

Sivan called The Weeknd "so lovely and hilarious," and Depp agreed, telling E! News, "He's a generous scene partner, he's really present, he's really supportive and he is a really good friend to me—to all of us."

Acknowledging The Idol's intense subject matter and graphic sexual content, she explained, "I think for me personally, when you're going to these really vulnerable emotional places with somebody in a scene, the hope is that you'll have that kind of trust and safety with them, and I really feel like I had that with Abel tenfold, and I'm very grateful he was the person I was doing that with."


But as far as the show itself, Depp accepted that it's now in audiences' hands to respond to it however they will.

"The beautiful thing about art is people are going to take way from it what they want to see in that moment," she said. "To me, it raises a lot of interesting questions about celebrity culture and idolatry and how we see people we actually don't know at all and talk about them as if we really do know them, and how strange that concept is and what kind of effect that can have on somebody's psyche."

"You just don't ever know what's going on behind closed doors," Depp added, "even if you see a lot of somebody's face and you imagine that you know them—you don't, unless you do."

The Idol premieres Sunday, June 4, at 9 p.m. on HBO and MAX.

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