Nobody’s Working for The Weeknd

Controversy swirls around the “crazy” forthcoming HBO Show ‘The Idol’

In a world where it’s hard to grab, let alone keep, an audience’s attention, a show has to call itself “crazy” in order to gain any traction. HBO has built the marketing campaign for its upcoming series The Idol, on that concept. The series’ first teaser described it as coming “from the gutters of Hollywood” and “from…sick and twisted minds.” It didn’t matter that the show was on one of the most popular networks, with a longstanding reputation for pushing the boundaries of storytelling–this show was different. It wanted you to know how crazy it was. In fact, that was the only thing it could talk about.

Now, seven months after the show’s first teaser released, a scathing insider report published by Rolling Stone has revealed that the true “craziness” of the series is not its plot. Instead, it is the genuinely horrifying and completely off-the-rails production set.

It is hard to determine who’s the audience forT he Idol. It attracts both Gen Z and millennials.  Sam Levinson, the creator, director, writer and showrunner of Euphoria,   produced and co-created the series. Pop culture enthusiasts are in a tizzy over the show’s expansive A-list cast. Talent includes Abel Tesfaye (Canadian pop superstar The Weeknd), Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny Depp), BLACKPINK’s Jennie, singer Troye Sivan, Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy, among others. The plot follows a famous singer/popstar (Depp) who gets involved with a shady, cult-like figure (Tesfaye). It is supposed to be a satirical look at the hypocrisy and secrecy of the music industry.

According to the Rolling Stone piece, which relies on testimonials from “13 members of the show’s cast and crew,” the combination of high-profile talent and filmmakers created complications, leading to a production process that was, and still is, nothing short of a nightmare. The article primarily highlights four reasons for the chaos: the removal of initial director Amy Seimetz from the series, the re-shoots and re-writes that Levinson demanded, the complete thematic and structural overhaul of the series, and the utter lack of communication and order on set.

The common issue on set was that, whether Siemetz or Levinson was in the director’s chair, no one knew what was happening. But, none of this was Siemetz’s fault. According to the sources, when she was director, Siemetz constantly met with nothing but difficulties from the network and producers. They would give her unfinished scripts and insufficient resources to create the show they so desperately wanted: Euphoria set in the music industry. Crew members in the Rolling Stone article described the set as absolute madness–by the time they were months into shooting, they weren’t even getting lists of that day’s shooting scenes anymore.

It seemed that none of this mattered in the end, because in April 2022, the show received a complete creative overhaul, even though they’d already filmed 80 percent of the scenes. With this overhaul, Siemetz left the series. Levinson, who decided to change the story to better represent his’ and Tesfaye’s questionable tastes, replaced her. This is the version of The Idol that we’re familiar with: a star-studded series that doesn’t seem to be about anything besides the fact that it’s crazy.

With Levinson taking over, the series became destined to finally fulfill HBO’s goals of being a provocative, spectacle-filled experience, rather than a story about the music industry seen through a feminist lens. Of course, the decision to recruit Levinson, who is arguably Hollywood’s most insufferable nepotism baby (the same man who made a film that exploited the theme of race so he could complain about critics’ bad reviews of his past works or who ruined Euphoria by stitching wildly disconnected narratives in toddler-like fashion), meant that he would bring all of his problems with him.

If there’s one thing you can rely on Levinson for, it’s on-set drama. The second production process of The Idol was like the first, on steroids. Rolling Stone’s sources claim that Levinson would constantly change the episodes’ scripts, usually to add more sexual and explicit content, and he would show up to set without a clear idea of what he wanted to shoot. Additionally, he would often clash with everyone else on set who tried to keep the production more organized, citing his power as the creator and showrunner of one of HBO’s most successful shows as a reason for why he could treat everyone else like trash. The article’s conclusion highlights a commonly held opinion about working with Levinson: don’t do it.

The article caused a lot of buzz when it was released, specifically because it affirmed what had become obvious by this point: the show is a mess. After all, it’s been seven months since The Idol’s first teaser and the series still doesn’t have an official release date. Just hours after the article hit Rolling Stone’s website, though, Tesfaye fired back at the publication by tweeting a clip from the show that captures a conversation between his, Depp’s and Levy’s characters discussing how Rolling Stone has become irrelevant in this day and age, citing their “low” Instagram follower count as proof of this. The text in the tweet reads: “@RollingStone did we upset you?”

The public instantly used the tweet, meant to mock the publication, to make fun of Tesfaye’s questionable acting skills and the series’ stilted and uninteresting dialogue.

Tesfaye’s response is a perfect showcase of what The Idol stands for: nothing. Essentially, the tweet exploits a piece that comments on the horrible, chaotic and, above all, unprofessional nature of the series’ production and attempts to try and make it seem cool–as if not knowing what is going on while making a series is a harbinger of the new, trendier Hollywood. And, the worst part is that it probably worked. Whenever this show comes out, its provocative nature and star-studded cast will likely make it a moderate success, even though its story will make little sense and be largely uncompelling. It is the product of endless rewrites, after all.

Regardless, there’s something baffling, yet fascinating, about Levinson’s inability to work collaboratively, given that filmmaking is one of the most collaborative processes ever. Maybe this is an elaborate tactic to fool audiences into believing he’s self-made, even though his father is an Academy Award-winning director. Perhaps it’s the result of someone who has genuinely convinced themselves they are self-made because they have achieved remarkable success. But, even Euphoria’s greatest attributes: Zendaya’s incredible performance as main character Rue or Labrinth’s tantalizing original score, prove that the best things come from effective collaborations.

Unfortunately, the success of Euphoria as a “Sam Levinson product,” as well as HBO’s willingness to let Levinson do anything he wants on The Idol, has likely only reinforced Levinson’s belief that he doesn’t need anyone else to get the job done. Tell-all pieces like Rolling Stone’s may only be the beginning, as we become subject to one “crazy” show after another, each in search of anything meaningful to say, but falling short all the same.

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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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