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Sam Levinson’s Unfortunate Return: The Idol

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Irvine chapter.

Disclaimer: There are discussions of sexual violence and drug use in this article. Reader discretion is advised.

On July 18th, 2022, an Instagram account under the handle @theidol posted a picture of Blackpink’s Jennie Kim, also known as Jennie Ruby Jane. With a nondescript, low-lighting single shot, the first Instagram promotion of HBO’s and Abel Tesfaye’s (The Weeknd’s) new show: The Idol graced social media. 

A promotional line from one of the early trailers of the show read: “From the sick and twisted minds of Sam Levinson and The Weeknd, comes the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood”. This tagline is no surprise with the reputations that Levinson and Tesfaye have created for themselves— with Levinson’s polarizing Euphoria under his belt and Tesfaye’s entire discography, the two coming together and creating something with the words ‘sleazy’ and ‘love story’ in the same sentence is a recipe for disaster. 

The show follows a tortured, young, rising star named Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), in the middle of a rebrand after an alleged nervous breakdown, post losing her mother to cancer. The show did not release much information prior to its release; the context of the show was limited to a vague description: an artist on her journey to becoming one of the sexiest female artists on the charts and her intimate relationship with the shady Tedros (Tesfaye), a contemporary cult leader, similar to that of Keith Raniere, of NXIVM.

Critical Reception

Since premiering the first two episodes at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, critics and reviewers have had a field day weighing in on the show, and it’s safe to say that it’s not the good kind. With reviewers itching to release some of the most scathing reviews for a premiere at Cannes, the show received a whopping 9% on Rotten Tomatoes after its initial release, and fans quickly learned that maybe there wasn’t much to look forward to after all. 

In a June article published by the New York Times, actress Lily-Rose Depp, who plays Jocelyn in the show, stated: 

“We always knew that we were going to make something that was going to be provocative and perhaps not for everyone,” (Depp 2023). 

As a long-time The Weeknd fan but a full-time misandrist, I’ve always felt rather skeptical about the artist’s musical identity. With deeply sexually influenced music laced with themes of severe drug use and unhealthy relationships, the artist’s music has become something of a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s not so much the music itself, but rather the demographic it attracts and the mindsets that it breeds. The Weeknd already walks a dangerous line between feminine sexuality and pleasure, and releasing a show that deliberately exploits young women, alongside Sam Levinson, was certainly a choice. 

It’s no secret I’m not Levinson’s biggest fan. I think his work on Euphoria was, for the most part, sloppy, and a visual representation of the male gaze. Chauvinistic, almost. The best part of the show was Zendaya’s Rue, and Levinson did play some part in that. Levinson has a history of addiction, and his work on portraying that on the big screen was, in my opinion, pretty well done. I’m not sure if this is an opinion I can have since I have been lucky enough to never see addiction close up, but considering various reviews and critics, this seems to be a pretty widely acknowledged take. That being said, I found the rest of his work on Euphoria was deeply oversexualized and almost naive, attempting to play into several stereotypes with a false confidence that he could articulate them in a way that the audience received well. 

Episode One

The first episode of The Idol, which premiered to the public on Sunday, June 4th, 2023 on HBO’s Max, opens with Depp’s Jocelyn following commands, making faces in front of a camera that are, “mischievous,” “vulnerable,” and “pure sex”. Interestingly, the audience can faintly hear “Criminal” in the background off of Fiona Apple’s debut album “Tidal”. Apple’s songs explored several adolescently taboo topics: female pleasure and feeling comfortable in her sexuality at just 18 years old. A deliberate and predictable inclusion in a show about a young girl exploring such a sexually exploitative label, but nevertheless appreciated. I can’t help but wonder, what would Apple say about this show? 

Jocelyn and her friends then go to a club to relieve some stress, where she meets Tedros, the freaky club owner played by The Weeknd. 

After a hallway makeout sesh and a brief, but self-righteous monologue by Tedros, where he makes remarks about the pop industry that (shocker!) don’t hold too much weight, Jocelyn says “I like you.” 

Later in the episode, after the club scene, Jocelyn and Leia, her best friend and assistant (unfortunate relationship), played by Rachel Sennott, are watching a movie and talking about the night that occurred before that. Jocelyn says she thinks she wants to invite Tedros over, to which Leia responds that he is super “r*pey”. 

And the kicker: Jocelyn responds, “I kinda like that about him.” 

There was plenty of speculation that this show was going to wind up being kind of a rape fantasy, (spoiler alert: it does!) with Levinson and Tesfaye tiptoeing around the obvious themes that the trailers give off: overexploitation and casual rape tendencies. Never would any self-respecting, power-minded TV show director say that about his show, but after his controversial work on Euphoria, a TV show fueled by a problematic sexual fantasy is certainly not unexpected by Levinson. 

I truly tried to keep my mind open about this show, fooling myself into thinking, hey, maybe they can make a sexually exploitative show that doesn’t include feminine identity as collateral damage, but nevertheless, the “I kinda like that about him” line proved me wrong. 

I guess I could say that there were some redeeming moments. Depp’s character seems to be a pretty normal, vulnerable young girl under a sexual magnifying glass. She seems to be considerate of her team, reassuring Leia is not only her assistant but also her best friend. Depp does an excellent job of playing the part of a lost, liable pop star, trying to find her way through the slimy underbelly of LA’s music culture. I can’t help but think her talent with this part is somewhat reminiscent of her semi-fame by proxy, with her name being at the top of the list of most nepotism baby rankings. It cannot be easy steering through the model industry with such a weighty title dragging you down, and I think that that may kind of translate in her work as Jocelyn. Not to discount Depp in any way; I love her. 

My favorite scene in the episode is one that happens when Jocelyn and Leia are in Jocelyn’s house, waiting for Tedros to arrive. Jocelyn sits on her bedroom floor, in a skimpy red robe, next to a fireplace, when Leia comes in and says Tedros is at the door.  There is a brief exchange between the friends, reminiscent of a normal conversation between two giddy teenage girls when a boy is waiting at the door.

“I’m just like…I’m lounging.” Jocelyn says as she strikes an overdramatic pose on the floor, before quietly laughing. 

“I love it,” Leia replies. 

Leia’s reply is obviously an exaggeration, as her demeanor throughout the entire second half of the episode is that she doesn’t exactly approve of Tedros or Jocelyn’s fascination with him. But the scene allows viewers to see that despite the extreme sexualization of Jocelyn, she is, at her core, a young woman, navigating young womanhood alongside her best friend. Despite the obviously severely oversexualized nature of the show, the exchange is a brief moment of purity, the innocence that comes with being a girl.

One thing I will say about Levinson’s work is that he does employ deeply artistic influences in his visuals. As an art lover, I have to appreciate it. We saw it in season two of Euphoria, premiering back in 2022, specifically in a scene where Cassie is crying and surrounded by an abundance of flowers. I drew connections between Sweeney’s performance as Cassie (over-emotional, slightly deranged) and the coloring and use of large amounts of flowers to Shakespeare’s character of Ophelia in his play, Hamlet. Levinson’s work may be deeply flawed when using female characters very loosely, almost as commodities, but I will grant him this— he knows how to make his scenes referential. 

The most jarring and hard-to-watch scene in the first episode of The Idol occurred at the very end. Tedros is giving some silly, shallow spiel to Jocelyn about how her singing will improve once the audience can feel her sensuality once she “knows how to f*ck”, a quality that Tedros thinks Jocelyn’s craft lacks. To show her this, he takes her robe from her and wraps it around her head, bringing the rope of the robe to her neck, nearly suffocating her. A bit excessive? 

Upon seeing this scene for the first time, I drew a connection to the 1928 painting, “The Lovers” by Rene Magritte, a well-known French surrealist artist. The painting shows two people kissing, but the two each have a thin layer of fabric lying over their heads, drawing a separation between their meeting skin. The scene of The Idol is deeply reminiscent of this painting, however, the power dynamic between Tedros and Jocelyn is shown much more obviously. With Jocelyn’s head being the only one covered, and Tedros towering over her, holding a knife to her mouth, it is an obvious homage to the plotline that will unfold in the show.

Even with so much more to say about The Weeknd, Sam Levinson, and the tiniest details of the first episode, I am hesitant to say more. One of the things I so intensely appreciated about Euphoria was the ambiguity of it. Whether it was intentional or not, the thick layer of animosity towards the show’s narration and plotline was an addition that did exactly what it was supposed to do. If Levinson plans to execute this show in a similar fashion, at least it’s interesting. 

I have some hope for this show. Very little, but some. With the polarizing reviews of the first episode(s), it’s hard to say what will come next. Some viewers said it was boring, and they found themselves falling asleep, whereas others took a defensive stance, reiterating that despite the unfortunate nature of it, this rapey, sensual, and twisted enigma of a show is what sells in Hollywood. 

I’ve found it almost difficult to think about anything else these past few days, with my head reeling on whether I should take down my Weeknd Trilogy poster in my room, or let it sit and give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, isn’t a show’s job to leave you thinking, whether it’s a positive reaction or not? 

Post-Show Release 

I’ve finished the show. It got canceled after 5 episodes, which is rather ironic, I would say. I got periodically less interested as the show went on, and the ending was less than acceptable. I have truly never seen such little talk about an HBO show, and what little talk there was, was negative. I’m pretty sure it got canceled before the show even announced the next season. It was certainly entertaining while it lasted, but let’s just stick with music, shall we, Abel?

Molly Summers

UC Irvine '25

Molly is a third-year Literary Journalism major with a minor in Philosophy. When she is not in class, Molly enjoys reading, hanging out with friends, and drinking copious amounts of iced oat milk lattes. Born and raised in Steamboat, Colorado, Molly loves to ski and has spent the better portion of her life outside. She is very excited to be in southern California for a change and be a part of Her Campus!