In March, Rolling Stone published an article detailing the trouble-plagued production of “The Idol,” a new HBO drama from the “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson. According to the magazine, nearly 80 percent of the show, about a pop singer (Lily-Rose Depp) who falls under the spell of a Svengali figure (the Weeknd), had been filmed with the director Amy Seimetz before Levinson stepped in to rewrite and reshoot the entire thing. As a result, said one crew member, it had transformed from a music-industry satire into a “rape fantasy” in which Depp’s character must endure a series of demeaning sex acts.
At the Cannes Film Festival, where two episodes premiered this week, Levinson was asked what he made of the report.
“When my wife read me the article,” Levinson said, “I looked at her and said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’”
When it comes to controversy, Levinson and his collaborators have clearly decided to lean in: Even HBO’s marketing for “The Idol” calls it the “sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood.” At times, the show seems reverse-engineered to generate think-pieces and indignant tweet-storms; if attention is oxygen, Levinson seems to have calculated that “The Idol” will burn brighter as long as people keep talking about it. Reviews from Cannes have been poor, but as long as they mention the outrageous scenarios and envelope-pushing sex scenes, won’t you be tempted to tune in?
Is “The Idol” really as sleazy as has been promised/warned? Let me try to summarize the first two episodes, and you be the judge.
The show begins with Depp’s pop star, Jocelyn, posing for a photo shoot, naked but for a barely cinched robe and a hospital wristband. The latter is a wink at rumors that Jocelyn experienced a nervous breakdown after her mother’s death, but it’s also meant to be a come-on, explains Nikki (Jane Adams), a cynical record executive: If men think Jocelyn is a little crazy, they might imagine they have the chance to bed her.
Almost immediately, Jocelyn’s team is hit with twin crises. The first seems tailor-made to get the internet’s goat: Jocelyn’s robe keeps falling away to reveal her nipples, and a buzzkill intimacy coordinator keeps trying to halt the session, no matter how often Jocelyn and her team explain they’re fine with it. Eventually, Jocelyn’s manager, Chaim (Hank Azaria), locks the intimacy coordinator in a bathroom.
As all of that is going on, a photo is leaked online that shows Jocelyn with sexual fluids on her face. But she seems utterly unbothered. Is this because she is so sexually self-possessed that she can’t be shamed? Given that she takes sensual showers while wearing false eyelashes and full makeup, it may owe more to Levinson’s depiction of the character as an always-on male fantasy.
That night, freewheeling Jocelyn heads to a nightclub, where she meets Tedros, the establishment’s mysterious owner, played by the Weeknd (the series co-creator, born Abel Tesfaye, who is so flatteringly lit that he often looks more like an A.I. rendering). There is an instant connection between the two for reasons not depicted onscreen, and it isn’t long before they get together in a stairwell, an encounter she later thinks of at home while engaging in a bout of autoerotic asphyxiation.
Jocelyn’s assistant (Rachel Sennott) is not a fan of this blossoming union: “He’s so rapey,” she tells Jocelyn. “I kind of like it,” replies the star, who invites Tedros to her mansion to hear her next single. He expertly negs Jocelyn, telling her the song isn’t sung with any sexual authority, but he has a plan for that: After running a tumbler of ice down Jocelyn’s frequently bare sternum, he pulls her robe over her head, chokes her with its belt, uses a switchblade to cut a mouth-hole in the material (the things this poor robe has been through in only one episode!) and orders Jocelyn to sing.
In the second episode, Jocelyn proudly presents this orgasmic remix to her horrified team. Told it’s too late to make changes, Jocelyn is dismayed but still manages to add a cold tumbler to her usual afternoon solo sex session. A girl has needs, after all.
But when Jocelyn shows up for a video shoot, makeup artists have to cover the cuts and bruises on her inner thighs that remain from that session. This makes her late to set, where she eventually dissolves into a crying mess. This also means that she’s particularly vulnerable to the machinations of Tedros, who kindly leaves a shock-collar orgy to move his entourage into Jocelyn’s mansion and engage in more kinky sex with her. There’s a lot of dirty talk so grossly delivered by the Weeknd that you may need to mute and switch to closed captioning when the show premieres on June 4.
Is it all a little too much? Of course, and that’s the point. At the news conference for “The Idol,” Levinson was asked how he calibrated the sex scenes and near-constant nudity without going too far. For a second, he looked confused.
“Sometimes, things that might be revolutionary are taken too far,” Levinson replied.