I don’t know if you’ve heard much about The Idol, HBO’s latest offering in the “more vibes than TV show” category. If you have not, consider yourself warned: sinister ponytails and a mess of controversy ahead. Co-created by the Weeknd (legal name Abel Tesfaye) and Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson, The Idol stars Lily-Rose Depp as a hypersexualized young pop star who, in the middle of an apparent breakdown, suddenly hands the reins of her career and life to a mysterious and greasy older man played by the Weeknd, to the shock and horror of her management team. The first episode, which aired on June 4, has confirmed what the trailer and initial reports out of the Cannes Film Festival suggested the show entailed: a ton of sexually explicit scenes, bisexual lighting, and Britney Spears deep cuts.
Speaking of Britney: Despite the “Gimme More” needle drop, the line “I haven’t seen shit like this since the ’90s” in the show’s trailer, and an explicit comparison to Spears in the inaugural ep, both Levinson and the Weeknd swear the story line has nothing to do with her or any other female singer, for that matter. (Never mind that, until recently, Spears’s life and career were also dictated by someone other than herself.) After the show debuted at Cannes to a five-minute standing ovation and a choked-up speech from Levinson, the director was asked during a press conference about The Idol’s inspiration. “We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star,” he said, adding that fame is “a lot of pressure — to have to be constantly on, and to be what everyone wishes you to be. It’s a lonely life.” Sounds a lot like the lyrics to “Lucky,” no?
In an interview with the New York Times following the premiere, the Weeknd again stressed that the show is “not about Britney at all,” but added, “How could we not pull inspiration from Britney, from Madonna, from every pop star that’s gone through any kind of serious pain?”
Obvious parallels aside, the Weeknd explained at Cannes that for him, the biggest inspiration for the show was not a famous singer but a famous vampire. “The first thing I can think of is Dracula,” he said when asked about whom his own character is based on. An original and subtle metaphor for the blood-sucking execs of the music industry, sure, but think about it: Who is under more pressure to be controlling and violent toward young women than Dracula, who literally needs to kill them to stay alive?
Horror may actually be an apt genre for The Idol, the reported details of which have made me wish that, like the Weeknd’s vampiric alter ego, I could shut myself in a dark, soundproof coffin for hundreds of years. As Rolling Stone recently reported, the show has spent the past several years in limbo after a rumored rehaul essentially scrapped the entire thing and reshot it without its original director, The Girlfriend Experience’s Amy Seimetz. Several industry reports have claimed that the Weeknd and Levinson took over with the goal of pivoting away from the “female perspective” of Depp’s character, and the show quickly became a misogynistic, violent pornfest. A crew member described the result in Rolling Stone as “a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman and she loves it,” while another simply called it a “rape fantasy.” One proposed scene allegedly had Depp’s character carry an egg in her vagina while begging the Weeknd’s character to rape her.
Though that one was reportedly never filmed, at least one equally off-putting plot point did make it into the show: Depp’s character becomes the victim of revenge porn after a photo of her with semen on her face leaks and subsequently sets the phrase “human cumsock” trending on social media. That whole debacle unfolds within the first episode, having already received less than encouraging reviews in France:
Neither of the show’s creators seem too perturbed by the optics of their creative decisions. At the Cannes press conference, Levinson said that his first reaction to the Rolling Stone report was, “I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.” He also claimed the piece left out details that didn’t fit its narrative, though he did not relay any of those omissions to reporters.
Actually, everyone who participated, at least those not speaking anonymously, has stressed just how wonderful the filming experience was for them. Hank Azaria, who plays one of Depp’s managers, told Cannes journalists, “I’ve been on many, many a dysfunctional set. This was the exact opposite.” When asked about the show’s nudity, which can fairly be described as excessive, Depp said that her character’s “bareness, physically and emotionally, was a big part of the discussions that we all had. Those were decisions I was completely involved in.”
Depp also addressed a scene from the first episode where an intimacy coordinator attempts to prevent her character from showing her full nipple on a photo shoot, per her own nudity rider. “I totally respect and love intimacy coordinators. I think they belong on sets, and that it’s important to make everybody feel safe,” Depp said. “At the same time, you have to have this nudity rider, and it has to be submitted in advance and it has to be signed by this person and the lawyer. It becomes this very structured legal thing when the purpose is to give freedom and safety to the person who may or may not be doing nudity. You literally can’t make a decision about your own body.” Technically, the point of nudity riders is to do exactly that, no?
The Idol is airing now, so hopefully you are reading this from inside a coffin sturdy enough to filter out further imagery of the Weeknd’s ponytail. Happy hibernating!
This article has been updated.