‘The Idol’: A Timeline of the HBO Series’ Controversies

The series was blasted as “sexual torture porn” before dividing audiences at Cannes

Lily-Rose Depp and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye in "The Idol." (HBO)

“The Idol” — HBO’s new series starring Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye as a Svengali-like guru who takes a pop star (Lily Rose-Depp) under his wing — premieres on June 4 after a full year of making headlines for its reportedly “chaotic” production, “toxic” set and, according to some, “sexual torture porn” content.

Here’s a timeline of all “The Idol” controversies that have beset the series, from the replacing of original director Amy Seimetz to reports from traumatized crew members to reception by critics, who, to date, have given it a dismal 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Amy Seimetz is out, Sam Levinson is in as director (April 2022)

Amy Seimetz, Sam Levinson
Amy Seimetz, Sam Levinson (Getty Images)

In April 2022, HBO said that the show, which began filming in November 2021, would be undergoing a massive rehaul with significant reshoots and several new cast members. Then came reports that director Amy Seimetz, who’d co-created the “The Girlfriend Experience,” would be replaced by Sam Levinson, who was producing the series and had tremendous success at HBO with the boundary-pushing “Euphoria.”

Several of the original cast, including the late Anne Heche, who died in August 2022, and Elizabeth Berkley, were cut entirely from the series as HBO took “a new creative direction.”

Nearly a year later, the cabler issued a disapproving statement about Seimetz’s version, saying that her approach and production, “unfortunately, did not meet HBO standards.”

Sources later told Rolling Stone that Seimetz was “set up to fail,” with half-finished scripts and a tight schedule: “Amy was doing her best in an impossible situation, but she was going to lose this no matter what,” one production member said. Seimetz has, so far, declined to comment.

Rolling Stone runs a scathing article about how the once female-centric series has become “‘torture porn” (March 2023)

Several anonymous sources told the outlet that the show not only had production delays, costly reshoots, last-minute script rewrites and a “sense of chaos” on set, but a “toxic” atmosphere.

Once production member told Rolling Stone, “It was 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.” Another called it “sexual torture porn.”

HBO strongly denied the accusations, saying, “The creative team has been committed to creating a safe, collaborative, and mutually respectful working environment.” Tesfaye also dismissed the story as “ridiculous” and refuted the implication that “these are rapists trying to make a rape fantasy.”

Depp also insisted that Rolling Stone’s piece was off-base, saying, “It’s always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about somebody you care about. It was not reflective at all of my experience shooting the show,”

“The Idol” is praised — and panned — at Cannes (May 2023)

“The Idol” had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where the first two episodes played to a divided reaction.

Although audiences gave it a five-minute standing ovation, critic Kyle Buchanan blasted it as “50 Shades of Tesfaye: A Pornhub-homepage odyssey starring Lily-Rose Depp’s areolas and The Weeknd’s greasy rat tail.”

Variety’s Tatiana Siegel, however, promised, “Sam Levinson fans won’t be disappointed.”

Critics give it a resounding thumbs down (May 2023)

HBO only screened the series for a few outlets, but most reviewers hated it. At Rotten Tomatoes, its current score is only 25%.

Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, wrote, “The Idol only pretends to expose exploitation, while actually reveling in it,” while Rolling Stone’s David Fear called it, “nasty” and “brutish,” and “way, way worse than you’d have anticipated.” Over at The Playlist, Robert Daniels slammed Tesfaye, saying the series is “the extension of a music star’s misplaced self-belief of his potential movie star credentials. In short, it’s crude, gross, and sexist.”

The series does have its fans, however. Vogue’s Douglas Greenwood said, “It is buzzy, brazen television that will do exactly what it set out to do: get people talking,” and Mashable critic Lex Briscuso called it “a raucous, engrossing ride.”

“The Idol” premieres on HBO on Sunday, June 4.

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