Sam Levinson The Idol: who is Euphoria creator, Lily-Ross Depp and the Weeknd review controversy - and wife

Sam Levinson's depiction of sensitive issues is something that he has come under fire for throughout his career

The new HBO series from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson is in the news following a polarising debut at the Cannes Film Festival that has left critics split.

The Idol - a rare TV production to be screened at the Grand Théâtre Lumière as part of the yearly French film festival - follows the life of troubled popstar Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), who is taken in by Tedros, a leader of a cult (Abel Tesfaye, better known as real-life popstar the Weeknd).

Despite the highly anticipated and divisive new drama receiving a five-minute standing ovation from those in attendance, it's come in for a bit of a critical mauling, particularly over Levinson's handling of more sensitive topics, and the depiction of Depp's character.

But just who is Sam Levinson, and why do his projects always seem to divide viewers? Here is everything you need to know.

Who is Sam Levinson?

Levinson is an American filmmaker and television writer/producer best known as the creator, showrunner and primary writer of the HBO drama series Euphoria.

Before Euphoria, Levinson had written and directed several independent films. His notable works include 2008's Assassination of a High School President and 2011's Another Happy Day. However, it was Euphoria that catapulted him to widespread recognition and critical acclaim.

The show premiered in 2019 and quickly gained popularity for its raw and unflinching portrayal of teenage life, addressing themes such as drug addiction, sexuality, mental health, and identity. The series received positive reviews for its writing, acting and visual style, and showcased Levinson's distinct storytelling approach.

One of Euphoria's executive producers is Levinson's wife Ashley Lent, and the two of them have worked together on a number of projects - including The Idol. She frequently shares details about the thought process that went into her collaborations with Levinson in interviews.

Has his depiction of complex themes been criticised before?

Levinson drew from his personal experiences and struggles with addiction and mental health issues while creating Euphoria. But while this added depth and authenticity to the show's narrative, Levinson's approach to these subjects has also received some backlash.

The show's explicit content and graphic scenes have sparked debates and generated mixed reactions among viewers and critics, with some arguing the show's portrayal of drug use and explicit sexual content glamorises and normalises risky behaviours, potentially influencing vulnerable audiences.

Euphoria's frank depiction of mental health issues has also been both praised for its authenticity, and criticised for potentially romanticising or sensationalising the struggles faced by its characters. But the show has been credited for starting conversations around important topics and shedding light on the challenges faced by teenagers in contemporary society.

While Levinson's other projects have not garnered the same level of mainstream attention and scrutiny as Euphoria, some of his previous works also faced criticism for their portrayal of sensitive subjects.

His 2008 film Assassination of a High School President received mixed reviews and drew criticism for its depiction of high school culture and its treatment of female characters, which some critics felt perpetuated stereotypes.

Levinson's 2011 follow-up Another Happy Day also received a somewhat polarised response, with some praising its performances and exploration of family dynamics, while others found fault with its portrayal of mental illness and its handling of more complex characters.

Why has The Idol come under fire?

It seems that The Idol is set to be more polarising still, with critics' reactions to the show's unusual Cannes Film Festival premiere taking aim at the depiction of one of the show's central characters, portrayed by Lily-Rose Depp.

“Levinson’s worldview seems corrupt,” said Variety’s Peter Debruge. “It shouldn’t take degradation and suffering to make Jocelyn stronger. Euphoria audiences won’t be too surprised by the shameful way he treats Depp’s character, as both she and the show appear trapped under The Weeknd’s thumb.”

Explicit scenes and gratuitous nudity are nothing new for prestige television, or shows that attempt to "push the boundaries" of course, but The Idol appears to be especially exploitative if early reviews are to be believed.

The New York Times’s Kyle Buchanan dubbed the show "50 SHADES OF TESFAYE" and described it as a "Pornhub-homepage odyssey starring Lily-Rose Depp’s areolas and The Weeknd’s greasy rat tail, while said that the first two episodes of the show contain several nude scenes, with one showing "revenge porn photos of bodily fluids on Depp's face."

Lovia Gyarkye of The Hollywood Reporter also gave the upcoming drama a negative review, stating that it was "more regressive than transgressive." The review details how, in order to entice viewers with the promise of sex-fuelled excess, HBO advertised the series as coming from the "sick and twisted minds" of the Weeknd and Levinson.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the series shares Euphoria's penchant for "graphic sex, cute clothes and self-destruction." Jocelyn's "naked, and near-naked, breasts are on constant display," it says, and "the term 'porn' is not inaccurate" in describing the show, which includes "several sex scenes that are graphic (especially aurally) even by HBO standards."