A teenage girl overdoses, found unconscious by her little sister, her cheek in her own sick. A young trans girl meets with a much older man for sex. A plus-size teenager finds her self-confidence and power by becoming a camgirl. In one scene, there are no less than 37 exposed penises.
Since its premiere in 2019, Euphoria, the drama following the hedonistic lives of drug-addled teenagers, has become an international phenomenon. That is despite — or more likely, because of — its astonishing taste for pushing the boundaries of both its (largely Gen Z) audience and its high school characters. The two series have won 28 awards (mostly for Zendaya’s electric performance as lead character Rue) and are a cornerstone of youth culture, from its stars’ signature eye make-up to its gospel-meets-horror soundtrack. It has even inspired Tik-Tok trends, the ultimate sign of respect from Gen Z.
Created, written and directed by Sam Levinson (son of Oscar-winning Rain Man director Barry Levinson), Euphoria has courted controversy since the beginning. Aside from the moral panic brought on by depicting teenagers having sex and taking drugs, Levinson’s penchant for nudity has come under fire. Sydney Sweeney, 25, who plays Cassie, has previously pushed back on Levinson’s expectations of nudity on set. “I would tell Sam, ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here,’” she told the Independent last year. Minka Kelly, 42 (who plays a mother who hires one of the teenagers as a babysitter, and does not have any sex scenes), once told Levinson she wanted to keep her dress on for a scene he had written in which it falls to the floor. Both actors say Levinson didn’t hesitate to take their comments on board and change the level of nudity.
A third series is set to start filming this year, but even with Euphoria currently off air, Levinson is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His next series, The Idol, is already mired in controversy.
The Idol was announced in June 2021. A co-production with former nightlife entrepreneur turned writer Reza Fahim and pop star The Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, it is billed as “the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood”. It follows a young pop star (played by Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny) who falls into the trap of an industry bigwig and sadistic cult leader (played by The Weeknd). With a female director, Amy Seimetz, at the helm, The Idol was set to be a shocking satire about the dangers of being a young woman in the entertainment industry.
But a new Rolling Stone investigation tells a very different story.
Following news that Seimetz had exited the project because The Weeknd thought The Idol had too much of a “female perspective”, 13 production staff have told the magazine how the series changed its point of view since Levinson took over as director. “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,” said one crew member.
Drafts of episodes seen by production staff were sexually violent, writes reporter Cheyenne Roundtree. In one scene (which was never shot), Depp’s character is beaten up by The Weeknd’s character and when she smiles and asks for more pain, The Weeknd’s character gets an erection. “It was like sexual torture porn,” said a member of the production staff. Another described a scene involving Depp’s character carrying an egg in her vagina to impress The Weeknd’s character in the hope he would rape her. If it was dropped or cracked, he would refuse, and Depp’s character would beg to be raped. This was also not filmed.
There is no suggestion that The Idol’s sex scenes have been filmed inappropriately. Levinson is known to have employed intimacy coordinators to choreograph sex scenes on Euphoria and The Idol’s IMDb page lists Mam Smith as an intimacy coordinator on the set of The Idol. But the sexually violent content of The Idol doesn’t quite track with creating a safe environment cast and crew alike can feel comfortable with. One source told Rolling Stone the series is a “rape fantasy”.
Having someone as respected and culturally cool as The Weeknd play an abusive, powerful cult leader is one thing, but to tell the story from his perspective, rather than that of his victims feels like a leap backwards for a post-#MeToo world. Since Harvey Weinstein’s reckoning, many TV shows and movies have strived to put women’s experiences under the thumb of powerful men and of sexual abuse on screen - She Said, The Morning Show, Bombshell, Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You to name a few. It’s strange for a new TV series to want to buck that trend and to do so proudly.
The rewrites and reshoots turned production of The Idol into a “shitshow” according to one production staff member. The Rolling Stone article claims that organisation of the shoot was a mess even before Seimetz’s departure, with daily schedules not published and crew members unable to prepare for upcoming scenes. The crew learned of the show’s shake-up from news reports while on hiatus in April 2022. When the shoot resumed in May, many production staff did not return, with many cast members – including Red Rocket star Suzanna Son – dropped from the project altogether.
Levinson’s new version of The Idol announced buzzy actors Rachel Sennott and Dan Levy had joined the cast, as well as K-pop superstar Jennie from Blackpink. “They didn’t let her talk that much. Her job was to sit there [and] look pretty, basically,” a source explained to Rolling Stone. The new plot also focuses more on The Weeknd’s character, though his busy schedule last year interrupted the shoot. Levinson was also reportedly missing from set, instead focusing on the second season of Euphoria, which was shooting next door. Crew members note the first time they saw Levinson on set was the day of Depp and The Weeknd’s first sex scene.
The various problems with The Idol shoot speak to how powerful Levinson has become, largely due to the rampant success of Euphoria. HBO, the network that airs Euphoria and will eventually show The Idol in the States (it sells its shows to Sky Atlantic in the UK) essentially gave Levinson a “blank cheque” to turn The Idol into “Euphoria season three with pop stars”, said a source. According to the report, Levison stopped sending scripts to HBO and despite Seimetz’s version of The Idol blowing its $54m budget, no one from the network stopped it being scrapped and remade. “[It was] probably the most egregious [spending] I’ve ever witnessed in this business,” a crew member with decades of experience told Rolling Stone.
The exposé spells trouble for the future of The Idol. There’s still no release date and HBO has become defensive. “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,” the network said in a statement to the magazine, reiterating that The Idol is one of its “most exciting and provocative original programs”.
Depp also defended Levinson’s direction. “I have never felt more supported or respected in a creative space, my input and opinions more valued,” she said.
But The Weeknd took matters into his own hands on the same day as the Rolling Stone article, tweeting a clip from the show in which his character denounces the magazine as irrelevant and passes on a cover story for his protégé. “@RollingStone did we upset you?” he wrote. Responses to the tweet have pointed out his and Depp’s sub-par acting, the stiff dialogue, and the fact that The Weeknd has appeared on the front cover of Rolling Stone no fewer than three times. The arrogance and indifference of the response to accusations of misogyny and difficult working conditions is not a good look, not only for The Idol, but also for The Weeknd’s wider brand.
Euphoria may also suffer as a consequence of the negative stories about The Idol. Concerns about sexually explicit storylines are sure to be heightened when the series returns. While the shock value of Euphoria made the world pay attention, it also masked some of Levinson’s uneven storytelling and rough-around-the-edges dialogue. By the end of the second series, with the nudity and drug-taking now par for the course, the inadequacy of the show was stark. With even more of a spotlight on his handling of women’s bodies and pain on screen, Euphoria season three will have to toe the line of decency a lot more closely.
One could argue that good art is supposed to be challenging and disruptive. But a TV set is also a place of work for hundreds of people – actors, hair and make-up artists, runners, lighting crew, scriptwriters – and their day-to-day lives should not have to suffer for someone else’s vision.
It is very unlikely that HBO will stop the release of The Idol. Too much money has been spent (and wasted). The show was already set to be shocking, and, for some, this scandal has made The Idol all the more intriguing – Levinson and The Weeknd, who clearly has no worries about how the accusations will affect his career, couldn’t have asked for better publicity.
What the series says about Hollywood, and the way it manipulates and abuses its young women (if anything), remains to be seen. But the people on the production team who spoke to Rolling Stone don’t sound confident. As one put it: “It went from satire to the thing it was satirising.”