Controversial, creepy and cringey — Why ‘The Idol’ fell flat on its face

With news that the controversial show won't be renewed for a second season, we take a look back at its spectacular failure.

When Sam Levinson’s The Idol was announced last year, the internet was almost drooling with excitement. Despite your own personal opinions of Euphoria’s quality, there was no denying its cultural impact, with the show averaging around 16 million viewers per episode and becoming inescapable all across social media. So, you’d expect Levinson’s next creation to hold that same unavoidability – and boy has it.

To say The Idol has become inescapable for all the wrong reasons would be a hefty understatement. When its first trailer was revealed, you’d be forgiven for thinking, “how could this go wrong?” With one of TV’s hottest director’s at the helm, a talented huge name in the starring role in Lily-Rose Depp, arguably the world’s biggest pop star, The Weeknd, would be making his acting debut, and it would be broadcast on HBO – the network responsible for Succession, White Lotus, Barry and more of this generation’s greatest TV. Somehow, in the end, the show took that seemingly winning formula, mashed it all together and made the biggest mess of a series in recent memory.

The series was practically doomed from the start, however. It was revealed by Rolling Stone in March that The Idol was plagued by unrest behind the scenes, with those working on the project calling it a “shit show” after Levinson took the helm following initial director Amy Seimetz stepping down. Levinson reportedly rewrote the show in his image, scrapping all of Seimetz’s original work, and, as a result, some scenes that the director wrote were not filmed as they were deemed to be too physically violent and/or sexually disturbing. When those on set are describing the series as “sexual torture porn” and bashing it publicly, it doesn’t exactly bode well for its future. And, from the moment the report was published, the show never really stood a chance.

The Idol debuted its first two episodes a few months later at Cannes Film Festival, and, unsurprisingly, it was battered by critics. Those in attendance warned that it was “sleazy” and “gross,” with the Evening Standard writing in their review: “Sexiness is absent in The Idol, for all Depp’s loveliness. Instead, it feels more like sleaze and torture porn.” By this point, Levinson was probably at his wit’s end, but after all the controversy and critical damnation, there’s no way it could get worse, right? Besides, there’s always a chance audiences would take to it, albeit a slim one. 

As you know by now, though, The Idol continued to self-implode into a million pieces upon release. After the internet got its hands on the first episode, there was no turning back, and those who actually enjoyed it were far outweighed by those who despised it. “So fucking cringey,” one Twitter user put it simply. It wasn’t just that the show was bad; it was more so incredibly bizarre and disturbing, but in the most distasteful way possible. The final scene pretty much summed it up, where Tedros (The Weeknd) says he doesn’t think Jocelyn (Depp) knows how to “fuck” because of her vocal performance. He then proceeds to wrap a sash over her face and ties it around her neck to constrict her breathing before cutting a hole in the sash and telling her to “sing now.” 

Since then, the proceeding three episodes haven’t changed anyone’s opinions. Fans took aim at The Weeknd’s poor acting and the show’s awkward sex scenes, causing the singer to do an emergency interview with GQ in an attempt to halt some of the backlash, where he claimed it was all intentional. “There’s nothing sexy about it,” he said. It just all seemed so desperate.

Each week, a new clip went viral. Clearly, people were still watching, but most of them, if like me, just out of morbid curiosity. Now, though, it seems as if the backlash has been too much for HBO, who initially reduced the original (already short by today’s standards) six-part series into just five episodes, and have now announced that it won’t be renewed for a second season. 

While the reason that some productions ultimately fall flat on their face can sometimes be discreet, we’ve witnessed every mistake that The Idol has made with almost too much detail. Each step of the way, Levinson’s creation has consistently shot itself in the foot until now, where it can no longer walk and will likely be all but forgotten in a few years to come.

WriterChris Saunders
Banner Image CreditHBO