Last month, the director Sam Levinson and his stars, Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. the Weeknd) and Lily-Rose Depp, walked into the Lumière Theater at the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of the first two episodes of their show, “The Idol,” to a standing ovation. The lights hadn’t yet dimmed, but pomp and celebrity fuels Cannes, where ovations are cheap. By the time the screening was over, the amped-up crowd was on its feet again and critics were racing out to fire off some of the most scathing reviews to emerge from this year’s event, with pans studded with barbs like “regressive,” “chauvinistic,” “skin-crawling” and “grim disaster.”
“The Idol” centers on a chart-busting pop star, Jocelyn (Depp), who, in the wake of a nervous breakdown, is prepping for a comeback. Surrounded by handlers — the cast includes Hank Azaria, Troye Sivan, Jane Adams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and the horror-film impresario Eli Roth — Jocelyn has made a lot of money for a lot of self-interested people. One night at a Los Angeles dance club, she meets Tedros (Tesfaye), a smooth-talking enigma with a rattail. Before long, she has invited him back to her mansion and they’re grinding in the shadows, and a mystery has taken root: What in the world is she doing with this guy?
Created by Levinson, Tesfaye and Reza Fahim, “The Idol,” which premieres on Sunday, was already a heat-seeking target by the time it played at Cannes. In April 2022, word hit that its original director, Amy Seimetz, had left the show amid a creative overhaul. For whatever reason, the brain trust at HBO decided to pump up the show’s notoriety in a teaser, released three months later, that trumpeted Levinson and Tesfaye as “the sick & twisted minds” behind “the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood.” But unwanted attention arrived this past March in a damning Rolling Stone article that, among other rebukes, accused Levinson’s version of being “a rape fantasy.” That teaser has since disappeared from HBO’s YouTube channel.
Levinson, Tesfaye and other “Idol” collaborators have vigorously defended the show and its creators. “The process on the set was unbelievably creative,” Azaria said at a news conference a day after the Cannes premiere, as Adams nodded along. “I’ve been on many, many a dysfunctional set, believe me,” Azaria continued. “This was the exact opposite.”