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The Idol
The Idol, 2023 (TV still)Courtesy HBO

Sam Levinson is not an auteur, he’s a spoilt nepo baby

His new show The Idol has scrapped its ‘feminist lens’ and been likened to ‘sexual torture porn’ – is anyone surprised?

Yesterday, Rolling Stone published an exposé on the new HBO show The Idol and its on-set turmoil. The article explored the details behind why the show’s previous director Amy Seimetz left, claiming that she had been set up to fail, and that co-creator Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye felt the show was focusing on the “female perspective” too much. Considering The Idol was originally intended to be a depiction of a pop star falling in love with a cult leader and her journey, this seems like a very pointed choice to romanticise her abuser instead.

Following Seimetz’s departure, Levinson came into an almost completed project and reshot nearly all of it, effectively binning the almost $75 million dollars that were spent on the production. Levinson’s changes included upping the nudity, gutting the cast and changing the storylines (members of the crew described the new version as “sexual torture porn” and the “rape fantasy of a toxic man”). Whatever Seimetz’s show was meant to be, this wasn’t it anymore.

As one production member Rolling Stone interviewed states: “What I signed up for was a dark satire of fame and the fame model in the 21st century. The things that we subject our talent and stars to, the forces that put people in the spotlight and how that can be manipulated in the post-Trump world. It went from satire to the thing it was [satirising].”

Levinson’s inability to depict stories of women’s trauma without sexualising it or dumbing it down is nothing new. His first film Assassination Nation opens with a cringe-worthy trigger warning that the film will shock and horrify you with how it depicts sexual violence and how Gen Z women are treated in today’s world. But in reality, it’s just 108 minutes of women being brutalised. This same film was heavily critiqued by an LA Times critic who apparently became the inspiration for Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, a film that examines the troubling experiences of a filmmaker when they’re critiqued. It’s a 90-minute axe to grind that doesn’t hold back on the fact Levinson felt slighted, and positions him as a victim in the industry.

What Levinson is best known for is Euphoria, the show that changed the way teen media exists today and effectively birthed the recent sex scene discourse. While the show arrived to mixed reviews due to its laissez-faire attitude to drugs, violence, and sex in a world mostly populated by teenagers, it quickly became a smash hit for HBO and remains the most tweeted-about show of this decade so far. However, Euphoria also struggles with on-set turmoil, with the rumours of Levinson creating a toxic environment for the staff, not to mention the alleged blow-up between Levinson and Barbie Ferreira, who plays Kat. Ferreira has since put to bed the rumours that she was furious with Levinson for the direction he was taking her character, but when you watch the second season of the show, it’s evident that her character was being written off: her storyline of being a cam-girl wasn’t explored further, and she barely took up screentime in comparison to her co-stars. In addition, Ferreira has now left the show, and it begs the question of if she was punished for speaking against Levinson and his vision.

This is in complete contrast to the way Zendaya is treated. She’s essentially Levinson’s muse; her character (Rue) is the most well-rounded and fleshed-out story, with genuine space for her character to grow and learn. Perhaps this is due to the fact Rue is based on Levinson, rather than an attempt at writing a woman from scratch. It’s not been reported that Levinson has issues with his remaining actresses, but when you examine how their characters are treated on the show, it’s obvious that in his mind, women can only really be Madonnas or whores – either a Lexi or a Cassie. Several main characters who are sexually liberated, promiscuous or otherwise, are heavily ‘punished’ for being so, especially in season two which sees beloved characters have their arcs erased, caricatured, or heavily dumbed down.

For example, in season two Maddie (Alexa Demie) isn’t given an actual storyline: she only exists to serve Nate and Cassie, with the former needlessly holding her at gunpoint to traumatise her further. Jules (Hunter Schafer) went from a rather complex character who was struggling with her relationship with Rue and, in her special episode (co-written by Schafer), explored many of her struggles with the concept of appealing to men and her identity. However, in season two, Jules feels like an entirely different person, one that chooses to cheat on Rue and seems not to be moving forward from the revelations of the special episode. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) went from a complex character in season one, to a shell of herself who steals her friend’s abusive ex-boyfriend. Sure, that was a dramatic plot point, but the show – and by extension, Levinson – never attempted to give her reasoning or choices any dimension beyond a cartoonish need to be evil. All of these women’s trauma becomes heightened and ridiculous; something to be laughed at.

It is worth noting that Sweeney issued a statement regarding Euphoria’s nudity, saying that she pushed back on some “unnecessary” topless scenes (though she goes on to say she never felt pressured by Levinson to go ahead with it). In fact, several actresses on the show have spoken out about nudity on set, and it shows that the worries of the staff on The Idol aren’t discordant with what we know usually happens on Levinson’s sets.

As it stands, when Levinson says “jump”, HBO will say “how high?” Euphoria is one of their biggest shows, and without Levinson, it may not be completed. So they give in to his whims and allow him to drain $75 million dollars, while shows that are not only better but also more diverse, and helm women and creatives of colour on board, are cancelled and removed from the site. I’m unsure if it’s fair to state Levinson’s engagement with sex and sexuality seems in line with notable abusers in the industry – at present, he has not been accused of sexual misconduct. But his on-set practises, demands, and refusal to collaborate do not make him an auteur – instead, he’s a spoilt nepo baby who can’t be reined in. Levinson seems to be unable to grasp the concept that not everyone will enjoy his work, and so he’ll continue making exploitative and shallow films and TV, wasting studios’ money and allegedly traumatising his staff. As viewers, we’d do well to remember that flashy filmmaking does not make him Baz Luhrmann – he’s just a guy who got lucky off his dad’s last name and a terrible Drake co-sign.

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