A timeline of HBO’s messy "torture porn" show, involving The Weeknd, Sam Levinson and Rolling Stone

"The Idol" series has seen production delays, one director exit and has reportedly turned into a "rape fantasy"

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published March 2, 2023 7:48PM (EST)

The Weeknd attends 20th Century Studio's "Avatar 2: The Way of Water" U.S. Premiere at Dolby Theatre on December 12, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images)
The Weeknd attends 20th Century Studio's "Avatar 2: The Way of Water" U.S. Premiere at Dolby Theatre on December 12, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images)

Forget about "The Last of Us" and "Yellowstone" — the latest drama you should be watching is a three-person play, starring R&B superstar The Weeknd, "Euphoria" creator Sam Levinson and Rolling Stone.

Here's the plot summary: At the center of it all is Levinson and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye's highly anticipated HBO series "The Idol," which failed to premiere last fall due to directorial changes, shooting delays, production rewrites and unfinished scripts. The heated hoopla was exposed in a Wednesday Rolling Stone report, in which 13 anonymous sources recounted the show's toxic work environment and detailed its disturbing, overly explicit themes. 

"The Idol" — which HBO describes is the "sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood" — stars Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a rising yet troubled pop superstar who falls in love with Tesfaye's Tedros, a mysterious L.A. nightclub owner who secretly runs a religious sex cult (think NXIVM meets Scientology). Initially helmed by Amy Seimetz, the six-episode series was meant to be "about a troubled starlet falling victim to a predatory industry figure and fighting to reclaim her own agency." But under Levinson's direction, the show transformed into a "rape fantasy," as described by one production member. Others called it "sexual torture porn" and "a distorted and jarring story that lost its overall impact."

Of course, the recent exposé didn't go unnoticed by its producer/star. On Wednesday, Tesfaye tweeted a clip from the show, in which his character bashes Rolling Stone as "irrelevant." It's accompanied by a caption, asking, ".@RollingStone did we upset you?" In a separate statement, Depp also defended the show and Levinson.

Simply put, the ongoing drama is messy and confusing. Here's a timeline of what went down when on "The Idol" set, from Seimetz's departure and Levinson's arrival, to the show's chaotic production and HBO's defense:

June 2021: "The Idol" went into development after being created by Tesfaye, alongside his producing partner Reza Fahim, and Levinson. The trio were named writers in addition to Joe Epstein and Mary Laws of "Succession." Seimetz — who is best known for starring in "The Girlfriend Experience" and directing, writing and producing "She Dies Tomorrow" — was also announced as director.

According to crew members, Seimetz arrived on set seven weeks before the show started filming and was given "half-finished scripts, a first-time showrunner in Epstein, a tight schedule, and near-impossible expectations from HBO." She was expected to emulate the extravagant sets seen on "Euphoria," despite HBO's budget of around $54 million (in comparison, "Euphoria's" budget was more than $97 million for its second season, raised from $47 million in its first). Seimetz also wrote while directing because the scripts for the final episodes were incomplete while the finale was completely unwritten.

Per sources, Levinson and Seimetz also disagreed on the show's creative direction: 

"I went into 'The Idol' thinking that this might be an interesting collaboration, but I left it pretty convinced that [Levinson] is not quite collaborative," one source said. "It's really frustrating seeing Amy doing her damn best to turn around some kind of product that she can be somewhat proud of to HBO . . . and then [for HBO] to turn around and have Sam get essentially a blank check to turn it into 'Euphoria Season Three with pop stars' is extremely, extremely frustrating."

July 2021: Tesfaye's availability was limited because he was getting ready to go on a worldwide tour. Levinson was also rarely on set as he was busy filming the second season of "Euphoria." The only time he was seen on set was a few weeks into production, when Depp filmed her first intimate scene with Tesfaye.

The show's set soon grew disorganized, with cast and crew members reportedly working long hours with little to no rest.

November 2021: "The Idol" was ordered to series, while filming continued.

April 2022: Filming went on hiatus after Seimetz suddenly left with roughly 80 percent of the show finished. News reports claimed that Seimetz's departure was because of Tesfaye, who was unhappy with the direction of the show. He said the show portrayed too much of a "female perspective" and placed more focus on Depp's character instead of his.     

HBO later announced that the show was set "to have a major creative overhaul" and would adjust its cast and crew. Seimetz's directorial duties were given to Levinson.

May 2022: Production of "The Idol" resumed. Many crew members from the first shoot did not return and little-known actors were removed from the script. However, notable cast members, like singer-songwriter Troye Sivan and Suzanna Son of "Red Rocket," were asked to stay.

According to crew members who remained on set, the environment continued to be chaotic. What was supposed to be a three-month-long shoot from May to July extended into September. Cast and crew were then called back for more filming in October, despite celebrating with a wrap party in July.

Levinson once again squabbled with higher-ups at HBO and crew members who were part of Seimetz's shoot. Her original script was scrapped, and Levinson allegedly stopped sending scripts to HBO and certain department heads. 

"It was a show about a woman who was finding herself sexually, turned into a show about a man who gets to abuse this woman, and she loves it," said one crew member.

July 2022: Production was paused again, just before Tesfaye's After Hours til Dawn Tour.

August 2022: HBO released the show's first teaser. The full ensemble cast is also announced. Alongside Tesfaye, Depp, Sivan and Son are Moses Sumney, Jane Adams, Dan Levy, Jennie Ruby Jane, Eli Roth, Rachel Sennott, Hari Nef, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Dean, Ramsey and Hank Azaria.

September 2022: Tesfaye's performance at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California was filmed for the show. Thousands of his fans in attendance were used as free extras, who didn't necessarily understand what they were witnessing.

March 1, 2023: Rolling Stone published its exposé. 

In response, Tesfaye slammed Rolling Stone on social media, writing, "@rollingstone did we upset you?" alongside a clip from the show of Tesfaye's character poking fun of the outlet.

"Yeah, nobody cares about Rolling Stone," Tesfaye's character says in the scene. "Rolling Stone has six million followers on Instagram. Half of them, probably bots. And Jocelyn has 78 million followers — all real. I'd assume. So she does a photoshoot, she tags them, they get her followers, more money for Rolling Stone, nothing for Jocelyn."

Tesfaye's publicity team also sent this clip out to press on his behalf.

Depp also addressed the report and defended Levinson, who she said is the "best director I had ever worked with."

"Never have I felt more supported or respected in a creative space, my input and opinions more valued," Depp continued in a statement to IndieWire. "Working with Sam is a true collaboration in every way — it matters to him, more than anything, not only what his actors think about the work, but how we feel performing it. He hires people whose work he esteems and has always created an environment in which I felt seen, heard, and appreciated."

A representative for HBO also denied the report. In another statement to IndieWire, HBO claimed that "the creators and producers of 'The Idol' have been working hard to create one of HBO's most exciting and provocative original programs." 

"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," they added. "We look forward to sharing 'The Idol' with audiences soon."

As for the show's crew members, many said they are now wary of working again with Levinson.

"This was such a strong example of just how far [Levinson] can really push HBO, and they will continue to cover [him] because he brings in money," said one member. "He's able to walk away unscathed and everybody still wants to work with him . . . People ignore the red flags and follow him regardless.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Amy Seimetz Euphoria Explainer Hbo Rolling Stone Sam Levinson The Idol The Weeknd Tv