Credit HBO

The Idol: Sam Levinson and the monetisation of controversy

By Alisha Vaswani

A potentially progressive project has been undermined by the pursuit of vanity and greed.

The creator of Euphoria, Sam Levinson, has taken over as director for The Idol, with results that seem to have already proven controversial, according to the Rolling Stone’s exclusive conversations with crew members. The show, starring Lily Rose Depp and The Weeknd, was initially being directed by Amy Seimetz before her untimely exit, after which Levinson took over and reportedly ordered a complete revamp of the project. 

In the time since, the show has been likened to “torture porn”, and its original feminist focus has seemingly been abandoned completely. The show is, by the admission of its own crew, no longer about female sexual agency, but instead sends a harmful and confusing message about abuse. One crew member said, “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.” While it’s a shame to lose what could have been a star-studded portrayal of the music industry from a feminist lens, this turn of events is far from surprising. Given what we know about Levinson’s previous work, controversy seems to be part of his brand – or, rather, its very foundation. 

Levinson is best known for his work on Euphoria, a show which has been heavily criticised for its sensationalist portrayal of drug addiction. Personally, I think Euphoria does an impressive (if occasionally flawed) job of portraying addiction, and this is made possible by Levinson’s strong writing of Zendaya’s character in the show. In my view, the real issue with Euphoria is what might be going on behind the camera: what intentions are at play behind the show’s needlessly graphic sex scenes. This isn’t to say that graphic content is always unnecessary and voyeuristic. Mike White’s critically acclaimed anthology series, The White Lotus, is perhaps as sexually explicit as Euphoria, and yet, I have always felt that its graphic nature served a clear purpose: not to exploit, promote or sensationalise, but to actually support the storytelling and characterisation processes. I suspect Levinson, however – like Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story – views the graphic and contentious nature of his work as something to be monetised, rather than something to be used with purpose and thought. 

When reviewing Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, The New Yorker said the film seemed “desperate to push buttons.” This describes the Euphoria creator’s approach to storytelling as a whole. I think The Idol will attempt to push the limits and provoke debate, perhaps taking drastic measures to do so. And while this is almost guaranteed to work in the creators’ favour, I feel that perpetuating harmful narratives about abuse in an attempt to get people’s attention would be HBO’s lowest blow yet. “Controversy Sells” is evidently Levinson’s ethos, and his success story is proof that it works. Euphoria is the network’s second most-watched show of all time. Now, with the “torture porn claims about The Idol, I’m inclined to believe that those still involved in its production are hoping to monetise the controversy and exploit it for all it’s worth. It’s unfortunate that a previously female-directed show about a musician learning about her own sexuality might be gradually becoming nothing more than another poorly conceived, male-dominated vanity project.


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