If anybody was under the impression that Sam Levinson, the man behind HBO’s hugely successful and hugely controversial drama Euphoria, was planning on doing something a little more demure for his next trick, then they are going to be very disappointed.
The first trailer for The Idol debuted over the weekend. The show, which is being made for HBO Max, sees Levinson team up with popstar The Weeknd for a saga that seems like it’s going to be a monument to excess. And, even judging The Idol only on the 93-second preview we’ve seen thus far, it amps up controversial themes to such an extent that it’s going to make Euphoria look like Downton Abbey.
Judge for yourself…
The show, which will star Lily-Rose Depp and pop singer The Weeknd under his real name of Abel Tesfaye, will chronicle the life of a self-help guru who may or may not be the leader of a modern-day cult. He enters into a complicated relationship with a rising pop star, and the two take up home in Los Angeles together.
Levinson’s eye for the young and handsome has filled out the rest of the cast, with singer and Boy Erased scene stealer Troye Sivan, Debby Ryan, who wowed in Netflix's Insatiable, and Rachel Sennott, winner of a great many plaudits for drama Shiva Baby and about to play a key role in buzzy horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies, all backing up Depp and Tesfaye.
When you hear stories about cults, your mind is generally drawn to either horror, chillers like Hereditary or The Wicker Man or Children Of The Corn, or to very unpleasant documentaries like HBO's The Vow, which explored the gruesome inside story of NXIVM, or any number of looks at The Manson Family.
That narrative is normally a troubled young drifter who is manipulated into giving themselves over to a sinister messiah figure. But, judging by the look at the first preview for The Idol, Lily-Rose Depp doesn't seem to be vulnerable or naive. But will it get dark? We'd guess it will, yes.
A winning formula...
If you watch any of Levinson's work, whether that be Euphoria, or Netflix's searing drama Malcolm & Marie, or 2018's gore fest Assassination Nation, you'll get a clever mixture of nihilism and black-hearted sardonic humor put up against real heart and real pain.
Take Euphoria, Levinson's biggest hit, and probably the most discussed drama of 2022. Most of the conversation around it surrounds the show's warts and all approach to excess, and the decision to show literally everything. So much so that the US education organization D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) felt sufficiently compelled to put out a statement (opens in new tab), declaring that Euphoria’s makers had chosen “...misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.”
That side of things generates a lot of heat. It is not, however, the reason why Euphoria is such a hit. The show plays on the youth of its characters, how reckless and cruel they can be, and it's able to make narrative choices that wouldn't ring true, but it has a knowing edge, it's the only way to handle the histrionics of many of its characters and make them feel bearable.
Judging by the trailer, The Idol has the same sardonic edge, in particular that killer one-liner from Lily-Rose Depp. There's a knowing side to the ridiculous excess, and that's something that can keep you going when things are getting a bit silly.
Anything could happen...
I don't know how this story is going to play out. It could turn into a gory horror, it could become a psychological thriller, it could be a Euphoria style teen drama, or it could be an extended music video with narrative interludes. Most shows couldn't get away with this. But they don't have The Weeknd's star power or Levinson's clout.
I'm perfectly prepared for the possibility that the whole show will be a huge exercise in style over substance. As Tesfaye's career has gone on, his music videos have taken on more of a narrative edge, but they still run secondary to the track that's playing over the top. Will The Idol be a series of stylish vignettes with the thinnest narrative thread pining them together? It could well happen, but I cannot wait to find out.
The Idol will air later in 2022 on HBO Max and in the UK on NOW.