IF THERE was one show expected to set tongues wagging in 2023, it was always going to be HBO’s The Idol. The studio has proven via the likes of Game of Thrones, it’s sequel House of the Dragon and of course, Euphoria, that they love nothing more than an aesthetically dazzling series that toes (and often steps way over) the lines of moral decency and taboo; and with The Idol, it’s no different.

Originally touted as a gritty exploration of the underbelly of fame that sees a young starlet squirm in the grasp of exploitation, the series garnered more and more attention throughout production as rumours arose of tensions on set between the show’s creators — and as the show’s tone reportedly changed from being satirical to becoming the exact subject of its satire. Very meta. Starring the show’s co-creator Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye as Tedros and Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, and directed (in its second iteration — but more on that below) by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, The Idol finally hit our screens in early June, and it’s safe to say that viewers and critics alike have a lot of thoughts.

There’s plenty of drama to wade through though, so we’ve done the hard yards for you and centralised it all in one spot, right here. Read on for the full breakdown of the show and its controversies — from cast and crew overhauls to “disturbing” sex scenes, whether or not the show will be renewed for a second season, and so much more.

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June 2021

On June 29, 2021, Abel Tesfaye (AKA The Weeknd) announced he was heading for the small screen, and would be acting, co-writing and executive producing in a HBO drama series titled The Idol. As reported by Deadline, the show was set to be co-created alongside Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and Reza Fahim, a nightlife entrepreneur-turned-writer. Amy Seimetz — an actor and the co-writer, co-director and executive producer of the critically acclaimed Starz series The Girlfriend Experience signed on to direct.

In the early announcements, the show was described as an exploration of fame, following a female pop singer who falls for an enigmatic club owner — who is also secretly a cult leader. Spooky.

September 2021

A few months on from the series announcement, it was revealed that Lily-Rose Depp — the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis — would play the series’ female lead opposite Tesfaye. The then-22-year-old Depp had up until then only appeared in films, with her biggest roles to date having been alongside her ex Timothée Chalamet in 2019’s The King, as well as Voyagers and Wolf in 2021.

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Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol | HBO

November 2021

A month after Depp was announced as the female lead, more cast members were unveiled, with a slew of starry names joining the team. Suzanna Son, Steve Zissis, and Australian singer-songwriter Troye Sivan joined the main cast, with Melanie Liburd, Tunde Adebimpe, Elizabeth Berkley, Nico Hiraga and Anne Heche announced as recurring characters.

With HBO announcing a series order for six episodes from the first season, filming began later that month in and around Los Angeles.

April 2022

April 2022 is where things start to get dicey for The Idol. On April 25, Variety reported that director Amy Seimetz had exited the series, and that it was, in fact, being entirely reworked, including further changes to cast and crew — even though according to sources, production was already completed on the majority of episodes. Levinson was tapped to take over as director.

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,” HBO said in a statement. “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.”

Later in April, further details of the creative overhaul were announced, with Deadline revealing Anne Heche and Steve Zissis among the main cast members who would be written out of the new version of the show (it was also reported that Suzanna Son was leaving the series, though she appears to have made the final cut after all). Sources close to the show also leaked that the reason for the rewrite was that Tesfaye thought the show had too much of a “female perspective”, with more focus on Depp’s character than his own.

July – August 2022

The extent of the creative overhaul became even clearer when a number of big names were revealed as new cast members for the show in July, with Shiva Baby and Bodies Bodies Bodies actor Rachel Sennott, Transparent and You star Hari Nef, and BLACKPINK K-pop superstar Jennie Ruby Jane joining the fray.

In August, the second teaser trailer for the show dropped, revealing Schitt’s Creek co-creator and star Dan Levy, singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, actor-director Eli Roth, High Fidelity actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Happiness actor Jane Adams, and The Simpsons actor Hank Azaria among the new cast members.

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Troye Sivan in The Idol | HBO

March 2023

Buckle in, people: In March 2023, things went from chaotic to truly messy for The Idol when an explosive Rolling Stone article consulted 13 sources to allege that the show had “gone wildly, disgustingly off the rails”.

We’ll summarise the bombshells for you: According to its sources, Rolling Stone revealed that the production was nothing short of a “shitshow”, with crew members in the dark on not only when the show would make it to air, but what it would even look like when it did. Scripts would change on the daily, with production drawn out time and time at the whims of Levinson.

Sources claimed the delay was the result of Levinson taking over and scrapping the almost-completed project, worth a cool AUD$80-112 million. To save money on the reshoots, Tesfaye moved out of his own AUD$104 million Bel Air mansion to offer it up as a major shooting location (it became Depp’s character Jocelyn’s mansion, and appears heavily throughout the series).

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Abel Tesfaye’s mansion, which serves as Jocelyn’s home in The Idol | BERLYN PHOTOGRAPHY 2021

Seimetz’s approach to the story was about a woman falling prey to the exploitation of the industry, then fighting to reclaim her agency. Levinson’s, meanwhile, was a “degrading love story” more like “sexual torture porn”, with increasingly “disturbing” sexual content and nudity. “It was like any rape fantasy that any toxic man would have in the show — and then the woman comes back for more because it makes her music better,” a production member said of Levinson’s vision.

Some of the shudder-inducing scenes that ultimately weren’t shot included a moment in which Depp’s character has her face “bashed in” by Tesfaye’s, only to smile and ask to be beaten more, giving Tesfaye an erection. In another, Depp’s character is instructed to carry an egg in her vagina (yes, really), and if it dropped or cracked, Tesfaye’s would refuse to “rape” her, sending her spiralling as she begged to be assaulted, believing it’s the key to her success.

“What I signed up for was a dark satire of fame and the fame model in the 21st century … The things that we subject our talent and stars to, the forces that put people in the spotlight and how that can be manipulated in the post-Trump world,” another production member said. “It went from satire to the thing it was satirising.”

While Seimetz declined to comment on the story, sources claimed HBO set her up to fail from the beginning, with a comparably low budget to some of the network’s other heavy-hitters, a tight timeline, and the task of finishing writing the unfinished series while also directing it.

“I went into The Idol thinking that this might be an interesting collaboration, but I left it pretty convinced that [Levinson] is not quite collaborative,” another source said. “It’s really frustrating seeing Amy doing her damn best to turn around some kind of product that she can be somewhat proud of to HBO… and then [for HBO] to turn around and have Sam get essentially a blank check to turn it into ‘Euphoria Season Three with pop stars’ is extremely, extremely frustrating.”

It’s safe to say that The Idol‘s key players didn’t take too well to the criticism. The article itself included a statement from Depp, who said she had never “felt more supported or respected in a creative space”. Tesfaye’s response was to Tweet a clip from the show in which his and Depp’s characters call Rolling Stone “irrelevant” and “past its prime”, captioning it “@RollingStone, did we upset you?”

HBO, meanwhile, offered a new statement in which they maintained that the set of The Idol had been “safe, collaborative and mutually respectful”. “

“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 … in the best interest of both the production and the cast and crew. We look forward to sharing ‘The Idol’ with audiences soon,” HBO said.

May 2023

In May, an interview with Vanity Fair offered further opportunity for Tesfaye to respond to the Rolling Stone article, which he called “ridiculous”, denying that the author’s subtext of “these are rapists trying to make a rape fantasy” was anywhere near the truth. He also defended former director Amy Seimetz, saying he “really loved” working with her, and emphasised how far his character is from his own personality, saying “Tedros is that superego that we as men wanna stay away from as much as possible. That’s inside of us and we just gotta kill that.”

Then on May 23, all eyes were on The Idol‘s cast and crew as they took to the Croisette for the Cannes Film Festival to premiere the first episode of the hotly anticipated show. There was a five-minute standing ovation, but the response from critics was mixed.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “in trying so hard to be transgressive, the show ultimately becomes regressive,” but noted there were “glimmers of potential when it stops trying so hard to be shocking”. Critic Kyle Buchanan rather deftly tore apart the series in a Tweet, calling it “50 SHADES OF TESFAYE: A Pornhub-homepage odyssey starring Lily Rose Depp’s areolas and The Weeknd’s greasy rat tail”.

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Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye in The Idol | HBO

But at the press conference the morning after the premiere, the cast and crew remained staunch in their assertion that the show was “something special, something fun, to make people laugh, piss some people off,” in Tesfaye’s words.

Of the controversy surrounding Depp’s character, Levinson said “it’s funny, sometimes things that might be revolutionary are taken too far. We live in a very sexualised world. I can’t speak to other countries, but especially in the States, the influence of pornography is really strong in terms of the psyche of young people. And we see this in pop music, and how it sort of reflects the kind of underbelly of the internet. Lily and I had a lot of discussions about who Jocelyn is as a person, what she’s feeling, what she’s angling, who she’s playing to, and from that point, the sexuality comes out of that character.”

The conference also saw Depp and Levinson offer their thoughts on the Rolling Stone piece. Depp maintained that she had a great experience on set, saying “it’s always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about somebody you care about. It was not reflective at all of my experience shooting the show”.

Meanwhile, Levinson said that he had known they were making a “provocative” show, but he thought the specifics of the article’s allegations were “foreign” to him. “When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I just said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer,’” he added.

June 2023

On June 4, the first episode of The Idol finally hit our screens so we could see the chaos unfold for ourselves — and once again, reviews have been mixed, but on Rotten Tomato they’re downright bad. On the review aggregator, the series has earned a 27 per cent rating so far, with a 58 per cent average audience score; so it seems as though The Idol hasn’t quite got the cult appeal it promised from the start of its journey. In the first episode alone though, there’s certainly all the “grit” that we expected — leaked nudes, BDSM, autoerotic asphyxiation (i.e. Depp’s Jocelyn choking herself as she masturbates), and plenty of nudity.

As the series continues to air, as expected, there’s plenty more division of opinions around whether it’s empowering or just exploitative.

But for now, rumours have arisen about whether or not The Idol is set to be renewed for a second season. Ratings for the second episode fell by more than 100,000 viewers — about 12 per cent — from the premiere, sparking rumours which were fanned into a flame by Page Six. According to their source, The Idol “was never meant to be a long-running show, it was always … a limited series”. Beyond that, sources pointed the finger of blame at an allegedly “egomaniacal” Tesfaye, with one claiming that working with the singer was “not an ideal experience … and not one I am eager to repeat”.

However, Page Six also cited an HBO source who spoke to the rumours that the series would be cancelled, saying “The door is definitely still open — it’s definitely not a decision [yet]. At this point, this is normal in our process … we’re only two episodes in.” The same source also said that HBO was unfazed by the extreme reactions to the series, adding “It’s a Sam Levinson show, and you know what you’re getting with a Sam Levinson show”. That didn’t stop the cancellation rumours continuing to spread like wildfire — causing HBO PR to Tweet in an attempt to further clarify the situation. “It is being misreported that a decision on a second season of The Idol has been determined,” the Tweet read. “It has not, and we look forward to sharing the next episode with you Sunday night.”

In their eagerness to clarify, however, HBO actually hasn’t given any indication as to whether the show will be renewed after all, so we’re still in the dark there. For reference, Levinson’s other HBO blockbuster Euphoria was renewed between its fourth and fifth seasons. And what about HBO’s other heavy-hitters? The Last Of Us was renewed between its second and third episodes. The House of The Dragon got an early renewal between its first and second episodes (but it does come with the Game of Thrones tick of approval, to be fair). The White Lotus‘ first season took a little longer, only being renewed just ahead of its sixth and final episode. So that is to say — just because it hasn’t been decided yet, doesn’t mean there’s not still hope for the show’s renewal.

Jennie in The Idol | HBO

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