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Why is The Idol so controversial?

From plot details to on-set issues, here’s what to know about Sky Atlantic’s new drama

Lily-Rose Depp & Abel Tesfaye in The Idol
Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye in The Idol.

The Idol is the latest drama from appointment-viewing powerhouse HBO, and one that was already shrouded in its own share of controversies before it even aired.

The six-episode series stars 23-year-old Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a pop star on the rise who becomes enamoured with Tedros, an enigmatic night club operator and self-help guru played by Abel Tesfaye, AKA musician The Weeknd.

Pretty soon, we learn that Tedros is the leader of his own cult and as Jocelyn works to re-secure her status as one of the hottest pop stars in the country, she inadvertently falls deeper into his dark and troublesome world.

The series has been created by The Weeknd who also co-writes, executive produces and stars alongside his producing partner Sam Levinson, creator of Euphoria.

An early teaser boasted that the show would tell "the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood,” showcasing clips of parties, drugs, nightlife and excess. However, off-screen, the production hit a number of speedbumps that, while counter-argued by its creators, earned the show a controversial early buzz.

What is The Idol about and who is in it?

Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)
Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)

Inviting viewers into the shady underbelly of Hollywood, fame and corruption, The Idol has garnered early comparisons to Euphoria.

Lily-Rose Depp stars as an aspiring pop icon who, after suffering some personal setbacks, embarks on a sexually-charged relationship with a self-help guru and nightclub owner played by Abel Tesfaye AKA The Weeknd.

Tesfaye and Depp are joined by an ensemble cast that includes Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy, horror filmmaker Eli Roth, Suzanna Son, The Simpsons' Hank Azaria, Rachel Sennott and more.

Hank Azaria in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)
Hank Azaria in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)

When will The Idol be released?

The first episode of The Idol, titled Pop Tarts & Rat Tales, was released on 5 June. New episodes will air in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW every Monday, with the finale scheduled for 10 July.

The first two episodes were screened at the Cannes Film Festival on 22 May, where it received a five-minute standing ovation but drew largely negative reviews from critics.

The show has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing. Read a selection of reviews below:

Evening Standard: The Idol review: The Weeknd’s troubled series is even more troubling in its depiction of women (3-min read)

The Guardian: The Idol review – light bondage and heavy sleaze make for the ultimate try-hard TV (5-min read)

The Independent: The Idol review: Striking, sordid drama comes close to a profound insight into our times (5-min read)

The Daily Beast: ‘The Idol’s’ Horrific Depiction of Rape Culture Is Shocking Because It’s So Lazy (6-min read)

What happened on set of The Idol?

Abel Tesfaye in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)
Abel Tesfaye in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)

Tesfaye revealed that The Idol was officially in the works back in June 2021 with director Amy Seimetz signed on to direct the first five episodes of the show, as per Indie Wire.

However, it wasn’t long before the production hit setbacks, starting with a production delay that was announced in April 2022, just six months into the show’s shoot. Citing The Weeknd’s last-minute Coachella headline performance for the pushback, the pause ultimately resulted in Siemetz leaving the project alongside a number of crew members, while the whole series received an overhaul.

A spokesperson later defended the decision, telling Deadline that “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.”

Euphoria creator Levinson was drafted to take over directing duties but soon after, a number of unnamed production crewmembers spoke to Rolling Stone about issues regarding the show’s revamped tone and allegations of toxic story beats and narrative.

Read more: New on Sky Cinema and NOW in May 2023

Detailing new sequences that were likened to “torture porn,” the unnamed crewmembers alleged that the new sequences which had been added under Levinson’s direction included "disturbing sexual and physically violent scenes between Depp and Tesfaye's characters."

The quotes continued, adding that the scripts were "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.”

Concerned about a lack of a visible female lens, Variety was quick to point out that these unnamed spokespeople had yet to see the finished product before adding that a "feminist perspective" still remained. Tesfaye even highlighted the issue on social media, posting a new clip from the show alongside the comment: “@rollingstone did we upset you ?"

HBO also denied these allegations, telling PEOPLE that "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.

"Throughout the process, the creative team has been committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment, and last year, the team made creative changes they felt were in the best interest of both the production and the cast and crew."

This statement echoes comments from Depp who also spoke to PEOPLE to praise her time spent working with Levinson. "Never have I felt more supported or respected in a creative space,” she told the outlet.

In an interview with W Magazine in May, Tesfaye discussed the changes that were made to the HBO show and claimed that he doesn't "release my music until I think it is great" so "why would this be any different?"

Dan Levy in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)
Dan Levy in The Idol. (HBO/Sky)

Tesfaye explained that he "panicked" when he lost his voice whilst juggling the project with his duties as The Weeknd, but it was important to continue with the show. He told the publication: "It was a challenge to redo The Idol, and, in truth, I sacrificed my health and home to make it work. So, let’s say it comes out and it’s f**king horrible. I still know I did my absolute best.

"From what I’ve seen, the show is great. Everything is a risk: When you’ve done the best you can, I would call that a happy ending. And I got my voice back."

Levinson also explained that "quitting the show wasn’t an option for Abel or me" despite the decision to reshoot the show because "it was a dream that we had together, and we had to see it through."

Is there a trailer for The Idol?

Our first proper look at The Idol came via its trailer which was released on Monday, 17 April. In it, we see Depp's Jocelyn living it up before being drawn deep into Tedros' world and pushed to the extremes of pop the pop world.

A further trailer landed on 30 May.

The Idol airs at 9pm every Monday on Sky Atlantic and NOW.