Why "The Idol" being canceled is causing so much joy: Sam Levinson and The Weeknd's big blunder

Admit it: You were also a hatewatcher

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published August 29, 2023 6:40PM (EDT)

Lily-Rose Depp and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye in "The Idol" (Eddy Chen/HBO)
Lily-Rose Depp and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye in "The Idol" (Eddy Chen/HBO)

R.I.P. to "The Idol" — finally. I feel a beautiful sort of vindication that the utterly despised short-lived, controversy-laden HBO drama will never reign as the prestigious television it strived and failed to masquerade as. "Euphoria" nightmare weaver Sam Levinson and R&B singer Abel Tesfaye's (aka The Weeknd) disturbing male erotic passion project died bitterly before it could stop pretending to be clever, weighty and revolutionary. 

[Levinson] inadvertently created one of the worst shows in recent history under the guise of creating Prestige TV.

The show was critically panned, received a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, and during its short five-episode weekly broadcast people all over the internet were seated to hatewatch it. Haters and enjoyers picked apart Tesfaye's inexperienced acting, nepotism baby Lily-Rose Depp's singing – who played Joselyn, the female pop star counterpart to Tesfaye's smarmy cult leader Tedros – and Levinson's screenwriting and direction. It would come to nobody's surprise that people rejoiced when an HBO spokesperson announced today that "after much thought and consideration, HBO, as well as the creators and producers have decided not to move forward with a second season."

Further, "The Idol" was the brainchild of the terrifying duo Levinson and Tesfaye. It was steeped in controversy even before it aired. During the show's production, news broke that the original director, Amy Seimetz had left the project towards the tail end of the shoot. Reports said that Tesfaye disagreed with the show's "female perspective." Production was already complete on four episodes of the six-episode series, which was then over-hauled by creator Levinson, who rewrote scripts and reshot a majority of the $45 million HBO poured into the show. The budget was raised to a shameful and wasteful $75 million during Levinson's reshoots. It's mindboggling that HBO would spend this much money to save a show that everyone behind the scenes knew was a flaming dumpster fire ready to blow. 

Before the show came out and people could form objective opinions on it, a scathing Rolling Stone exposé was released earlier this year. The report detailed serious allegations that with Levinson at the helm of the show, he created an erratic, toxic working environment. At the Cannes Film Festival, Levinson said the Rolling Stone piece made him realize the show would be "the biggest show of the summer."

All the hatewatching in the world wasn't enough to revive "The Idol" from its inevitable death.

In a way, Levinson is right in a "boy who cried wolf" kind of sardonic way. He's not right because the show is any good — but he's right because he inadvertently created one of the worst shows in recent history under the guise of creating Prestige TV. And it's opened the Hellmouth to discuss inherently what is wrong with the film and television industry when Barry Levinson's annoying nepo baby son and a pretentious cinephile R&B singer are given a disposable income to create abhorrent, "sexual torture porn."

Audiences and critics so ardently hated "The Idol" because the subject matter and behind-the-scenes drama were so hateable. Culturally, "The Idol" which was lauded by the network as "HBO's most exciting and provocative original programs," just didn't appeal to what people are craving on TV. All the hatewatching in the world wasn't enough to revive "The Idol" from its inevitable death. And that's saying a lot because yes, we undeniably love horrible, trashy television in America. But television has become such a prestigious space that once HBO produces a show, people already have significantly high expectations. 

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Prestigious HBO TV like "Succession," "The White Lotus" and "Big Little Lies" showcase exactly the kind of voyeurism audiences revel in. These shows depict depravity and grotesque images of wealth and exploitation – but as a critique – and that's what people crave in this modern era of TV. It reflects the obscene disparities of income inequality present in American society and culture. Eventually, we want to see the ugly, rich and inhumane people suffer because, at the end of the day, they are the villains in our stories. These satirical dramas always have a deeper core to their storytelling, and "The Idol" lost whatever sincerity it had when it succumbed to the egos of rich, unrelenting and insincere provocateurs like Levinson and Tefsaye. 

The sad part about "The Idol's" complete failure is that there is a kernel of a solid idea in the story of an exploited female pop star that Seimetz brought to life in her first draft of the show. Stories like that resonate with audiences as we have had a resurgence in understanding the nuances and exploitation of female celebrities like the pornification of child stars turned adult celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in the early aughts. Tesfaye even has the experience to speak to superstardom as his music alter ego has hit the heights of mega success in the last decade. Also, Depp is the daughter of a former A-list movie star, Johnny Depp, who has been in the news nonstop since the defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard trial rocked America and our understanding of what victim blaming on an international scale looks like. All of these people involved, in some shape or capacity, can speak to this central idea of celebrity exploitation, and yet we were left with scenes of a viral selfie of Depp's character, Joselyn with semen on her face posted online without her consent . . . Thank god, "The Idol" was canceled.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Abel Tesfaye Commentary Hbo Lily Rose Depp Sam Levinson The Idol The Weeknd Tv