- Film And TV
- 14 Jun 23
Shortly to hit Marlay Park with his After Hours Til Dawn tour, Abel ‘The Weekend’ Tesfaye this month also stars in the year’s most controversial TV show, lurid music biz drama The Idol. You could say he’s got a busy summer ahead...
In attempting to hype their new HBO series The Idol, Abel ‘The Weeknd’ and Tesfaye and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson may not have proceeded wisely, but too well. Having just hit the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic after a torturous production and stinging early reviews, the show centres on aspiring pop star Jocelyn, played by Lily-Rose Depp.
After suffering a nervous breakdown, Jocelyn descends into the most sordid depths of Hollywood nightlife, with sleazy nightclub manager and ‘self-help’ guru Tedros (Tesfaye) guiding her through the debauchery. No doubt impressed by the kudos his fellow Toronto rapper Drake was receiving for his role as producer on the zeitgeist-defining Euphoria, Tesfaye fancied getting in on the TV action himself, and two years ago, The Idol was announced.
In pairing Tesfaye with Levinson, HBO undoubtedly knew what it was letting itself in for, and to some degree was even deliberately courting controversy. World class provocateurs, both like to push the envelope as far as taste allows – and usually a little further for good measure.
Since sending critics into raptures with his debut mixtape in 2011 – which blended slick R&B with samples of Siouxsie & The Banshees and Cocteau Twins – Tesfaye has cultivated a louche fuckboi persona across a series of mega-hit albums, including Beauty Behind The Madness, After Hours and last year’s Dawn FM. The 38-year-old Levinson, meanwhile, has become notorious as the creator of Euphoria,which has deservedly launched its star Zendaya to international stardom on its way to becoming one of HBO’s flagship series.
In many ways the anti-Normal People, Euphoria is a brilliantly fearless look at modern teen life, with a transgressive aesthetic influenced by Gen X touchstones like Trainspotting, Kids and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (after which Tesfaye named a track on Dawn FM). It has also routinely sparked heated debate in its treatment of sex, drug abuse, self-harm and sundry other issues. All things considered, The Idol was unlikely to prove another Glenroe.
Clues as to what to expect came via a selection of early trailers last year, which amped up the salaciousness, and billed the series as coming “from the gutters of Hollywood”, having been devised by the “sick and twisted minds who brought you Euphoria”. Which was all as you might expect – HBO was deploying every available PR ruse to build anticipation for the show.
However, signs that trouble was afoot had arrived earlier in 2022. Amid the standard talk of “onset tensions” and “differences in creative vision”, it emerged that the show was to undergo major overhaul, with Levinson taking over directorial duties from the previously in situ Amy Seimetz. Reportedly, Tesfaye wanted to focus less on the “cult” aspect of the show, which he felt was leaning “too much into a female perspective”.
The real powder-keg, though, came in March of this year, when Rolling Stone published an explosive piece alleging a variety of behind-the-scenes issues, and also claiming that the original vision of The Idol had devolved into “twisted torture porn”. Tesfaye attempted to shrug off the controversy, tweeting “Rolling Stone did we upset you?”
All in all, there was feverish anticipation when The Idol finally debuted at Cannes in May, with hacks elbowing each other to get a glimpse of a show whose budget had now soared to $75 million, with reshoots adding an eye-watering $20 million to production costs. The critical knives were out for Tesfaye and Levinson, with the early reviews recalling the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where Marti Di Bergi reads the band their worst reviews.
This @RollingStone story notes how Seimetz's take (about “a troubled starlet falling victim to a predatory industry figure and fighting to reclaim her own agency”) differs from what Levinson and Tesfaye made (“a degrading love story with a hollow message”) https://t.co/hUFJI8ZDWs
— Isaac Feldberg (@isaacfeldberg) June 12, 2023
The Idol is “way worse than you heard”, fumed a dismayed Rolling Stone. “Much of it amounts to tawdry cliches lifted from Sidney Sheldon novels and softcore porn” was the verdict from Variety, while The Telegraph suggested “Sex talk that manages to be a turn-off in two different ways is some screenwriting feat”.
Some found more to admire in the series, and particularly Depp’s performance. Vogue called The Idol “a gorgeous looking horror-show”, adding, “The same audiences that fell hard for Euphoria… will likely do the same for this one. It is buzzy, brazen television that will do exactly what it set out to do: get people talking”.
Certainly, even by Tesfaye and Levinson’s lofty standards, The Idol is an exercise in shameless button-pushing. Subjects like porn selfies and autoerotic asphyxiation are placed firmly on the agenda – and that’s before Jocelyn has even entered Tedros’ orbit. While viewers’ mileage on the show’s transgressions may vary dramatically, there is something to be said for The Idol’s gaudy sensationalism.
Tesfaye has said one of its primary aims is to piss “people people off”, a not unwelcome development in an era defined by its artistic meekness. As the series progresses, there is something approaching a treatise – admittedly half-baked –on the celebrity-industrial complex and American cultural decay, though it’s unlikely to get much airtime amidst the scandalised debate on the amount of sex and drugs.
Amidst a full-force media cyclone in Cannes, Levinson bravely attempted to steer the focus back to The Idol’s thematic concerns.
“We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star,” he told the assembled media, denying the series was based on Britney Spears. “It’s a lot of pressure – to have to be constantly on, and to be what everyone wishes you to be. It’s a lonely life… We can all pretend that everyone is looking out for someone’s best interest, but I think fame really corrupts. It’s really easy to surround yourself with myth-makers who continue to prop us up.”
Echoing the sentiment, Depp – who cited Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct as one of the main influences on her performance – explained how she approached the role.
"We’re not telling anyone else’s story,” she commented. “I think something we wanted to do is make her feel simultaneously like a pop star of our time, but one that is in her own plane.”
Tesfaye, finally, offered his take on The Idol.
“We initially wanted to make a dark, twisted fairytale within the music industry and everything I know about it, and heighten it,” he said. “And also take inspirations from films that both me and Sam love – it was really our love for music. When I found out how much Sam is involved in the music in Euphoria, and getting to work with him on the music on the show, that’s when it unlocked for us.
“Can we create our own pop star? Can we create somebody who is trying to find themselves? And do it using my experiences, his experiences, Lily’s experiences, to create something special, daring, exciting and fun, which will make people laugh.”
And piss them off, of course.
• The Idol is on Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. The Weeknd plays Marlay Park, Dublin on June 28.
Read more in the new issue of Hot Press, out now.