12 Signs You’re Watching a Sam Levinson Project


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May 25, 2023

12 Signs You’re Watching a Sam Levinson Project

By Savannah Walsh After the series finales of Succession and Barry last week,

By Savannah Walsh

After the series finales of Succession and Barry last week, those who aimlessly wandered into HBO's 9 p.m. Sunday slot may not have known what to expect from The Idol—a series branded "the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood," from "the sick and twisted minds" of Abel Tesfaye , Reza Fahim, and Sam Levinson. But those familiar with Levinson's often controversial oeuvre couldn't have been shocked by the petri dish of sex, drugs, pop music, and toplessness that greeted them in the show's premiere.

The Idol is textbook Levinson. A Star Is Born meets Basic Instinct, it tells the fractured love story of Tesfaye's nightclub impresario Tedros and Lily-Rose Depp's floundering pop star Jocelyn. In addition to its toxic central pairing, like Levinson's other work there are sweeping needle-drops, eroticism meant to provoke, diatribes on the dangers of the internet and media, and—yes, glitter.

The show has also courted the kind of contention typical to a Levinson joint. In March, Rolling Stone published a damning article claiming that The Idol was "a rape fantasy" that had gone into disarray behind the scenes due to Levinson's shooting methods. His rumored free-flowing approach was even joked about in the current season of Max's The Other Two: "You should also watch Euphoria. On that show, the camera never stops moving and there's no shot list. The actors and director just figure it out together every day," Drew Tarver's Cary Dubek tells a group of disillusioned actors on a courtroom procedural. One of them replies, "That sounds bad, actually."

But the man behind Euphoria doesn't seem bothered by his work's divisive nature—both onscreen and off. Levinson has chosen to publicly revel in the attention, denying any behind-the-scenes drama. "When my wife read me the article" about The Idol, he told press at the Cannes Film Festival, "I looked at her and I said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’"

Beyond a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from Euphoria's Alexa Demie in The Idol's series premiere, here's a foolproof guide to knowing you’re watching something written by Sam Levinson—from his HBO series to films like Malcolm & Marie and Assassination Nation.

Levinson, who has inspired both adoration and ire on the internet, is similarly preoccupied with what it means to be living in a digital age. Major plot points in three of his projects have hinged on the leaking of private photos or images. In Assassination Nation, his 2018 film about "the abuse and madness and craziness of being a young person today," phones in the fictional town of Salem are hacked, leading to mass violence and chaos. On Euphoria, Cassie's (Sydney Sweeney) intimate videos are passed around groups of sweaty high school boys, and the release of Jules's (Hunter Schafer) sexual encounter with the parent (Eric Dane) of another student (Jacob Elordi) is used to blackmail both parties. (Assassination Nation also has an underage character engage in an inappropriate virtual relationship with an older man referred to as "Daddy.") And in The Idol's first episode, a sexually explicit photo of Jocelyn gets leaked in what appears to be a case of "revenge porn." Naturally, Levinson's own Instagram is set to private.

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Whether it be the Emmy-winning original music from Euphoria composer Labrinth or the thematically revealing needle drops in The Idol's first episode from Fiona Apple and Madonna, Levinson never misses the opportunity to script a song—or 30-something of them, the number included in Euphoria season two's first episode alone. He's also been known to end his projects on a high note. Both the season one finale of Euphoria and Assassination Nation close out with a marching band musical number on a suburban neighborhood street.

Glittery, ornate eye makeup has become synonymous with Euphoria and its bejeweled teenage protagonists. "These looks don't need to be tethered to naturalism, as the stakes in high school feel so incredibly heightened and the makeup designs should mirror that," Levinson previously told Vanity Fair via email. There's plenty of shine in his other projects as well, from Zendaya's metallic shadow in 2021's Malcolm & Marie to Rachel Sennott's rhinestone appliqués on The Idol.

One of the constants across Levinson's filmography is the presence of his Emmy-winning Euphoria cinematographer, who also served as DP of Assassination Nation, Malcolm & Marie, and, now, The Idol.

As is the case with most auteurs, Levinson has something of a repertory company: Hari Nef, who plays a Vanity Fair reporter in The Idol, previously starred in Assassination Nation, as did Euphoria's Maude Apatow and Colman Domingo. Euphoria's Jacob Elordi nabbed a role in last year's erotic thriller Deep Water, which Levinson cowrote with Zach Helm. That show's Emmy-winning lead, Zendaya, also played the female lead opposite John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie. Speaking of Washington: Levinson, son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson, has a habit of keeping it in the family by casting fellow "nepotism babies" in his productions. The list includes Washington (son of Denzel), Apatow (daughter of Judd and Leslie Mann), Depp (daughter of Johnny), and Dan Levy (son of Eugene).

Most of the action in The Idol's premiere occurs in pop star Jocelyn's palatial mansion, which is actually Tesfaye's IRL house. Levinson has a knack for shooting every nook and cranny of a place, as he did with the Caterpillar House in Carmel, California. He shot Malcolm & Marie there during the height of COVID. Some of Euphoria's best episodes (the season one carnival and subsequent Halloween/New Year's Eve parties) were also confined to one space.

During her album cover photo shoot, The Idol's Jocelyn shrugs off her intimacy coordinator (who winds up getting locked in a closet) and defiantly showcases her breasts. "Will you let people enjoy sex, drugs, and hot girls? Stop trying to cockblock America," one of her handlers quips, a meta statement from a man who has weathered controversy for what some deem excessive nudity.

In the past, Euphoria stars Sydney Sweeney, Minka Kelly , and Martha Kelly have all expressed discomfort with nudity or sexual content on the series they felt was gratuitous. While each of them said that Levinson took their concerns to heart and changed the scenes they objected to, it hasn't stopped him from getting defensive about nudity in his projects. (For the record: yes, the men get naked too. "It also plays into that feeling that the audience has: Oh, she's a victim. She has to be a victim," Levinson told The New York Times of Jocelyn's perpetual state of undress. "I believe people will underestimate Jocelyn as a character because of how exposed she is."

In his review of The Idol, VF's Richard Lawson writes that Levinson is "a leerer, steadfastly dedicated to showing young actresses in various states of arousal or despair." As such, there is no shortage of sex in his projects, be it in the heat of high school discovery, within the boundaries of a broken marriage, or as a solo exercise in breath control.

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Levinson's been open about infusing his own experiences of teen substance abuse and addiction into Euphoria. Several of the show's teenage characters are shown using drugs throughout the series, so much so that DARE—yes, it still exists—argued that the show "chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict" drugs. Zendaya, whose character Rue is deeply entrenched in her own addiction, has said she has hopes that Rue can get clean "because Sam wrote it, and Sam is Rue, and he's done it. He's proof that there is hope for Rue and anyone like Rue." Her character in Malcolm & Marie also struggles with addiction, and in The Idol's first episode, Tedros (Tesfaye) snorts cocaine before meeting with Jocelyn in her home.

A Nancy Meyers rom-com this is not. If there's a relationship in the Levinson-verse, odds are you wouldn't want to be in it. There's the 100-minute squabbling fest between Malcolm and Marie, the downright dangerous Nate-Cassie-Maddy love triangle in Euphoria season two, and the homicidal scheming between Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in Deep Water. Given The Idol's early strangulation-as-seduction scene, that pattern of bad romance doesn't appear to relent.

Levinson, who has detailed his own past mental health concerns, explores similar struggles in his characters, whether it be Rue's inability to leave her bed—and extensive Love Island marathon—or the decline of Barbie Ferreira's Kat due to her body image issues. The inherent anxiety that comes with being a young person similarly colors the teens of Assassination Nation and The Idol's Jocelyn, who's still wearing a hospital bracelet in the show's first episode. Jane Adams's character even quips of the pop star, "She is still never, ever gonna fuck you, unless she has some very, very serious mental problems. And that right there is why mental illness is sexy."

"Five years ago when people would tell me that it was important to comment on something publicly, I would buy into it," Depp's Jocelyn tells a Vanity Fair reporter in The Idol. "But now I just know that I’m being hustled." That sentiment appears to come straight from Levinson, who has largely avoided giving interviews since the release of 2021's Malcolm & Marie, in which he defended his right to tell a story fronted by two actors of color with a 12-year age gap between them.

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Some suspected Levinson of airing grievances about the media in that movie; much of the plot is centered on Washington's filmmaker character, who has an impassioned reaction to a review from a "white lady at the LA Times" who doesn't understand his work. There's been speculation that Levinson was referring to Katie Walsh, one of only two white women writing freelance film criticism for The Los Angeles Times at the time—and who panned Levinson's Assassination Nation. Levinson seemed to deny that he was singling out Walsh, adding, "Look, as much as I am loath to admit it, she was not the only person who hated Assassination Nation."

In a future episode of The Idol, it appears that a Levinson character will take aim at Rolling Stone—an amusing coincidence considering the outlet's reporting on the series. After the publication of that exposé, Tesfaye shared what appears to be a clip from the show featuring himself, Depp, and Levy in which his character says, "Yeah, nobody cares about Rolling Stone." Addressing the post in his Vanity Fair cover story, Tesfaye said, "I thought the article was ridiculous. I wanted to give a ridiculous response to it."

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From the Archive: Diana and the Press (1998)

Abel Tesfaye , Reza Fahim, Sam Levinson. Lily-Rose Depp Drew Tarver Alexa Demie Someone's social media gets hacked. Sydney Sweeney Hunter Schafer Eric Dane Jacob Elordi A propulsive soundtrack plays. Labrinth Fiona Apple Madonna, There's glitter galore. Zendaya Rachel Sennott Cinematographer Marcell Rév shot it. There are some familiar faces—many of them nepo babies. Hari Nef, Maude Apatow Colman Domingo. Jacob Elordi Zach Helm. John David Washington Barry Levinson Denzel Judd Leslie Mann Johnny Dan Levy Eugene Some of the best action takes place in a single location. Tesfaye Expect scantily clad women. , Minka Kelly , Martha Kelly And voyeuristic sex scenes. Richard Lawson And drug use. The relationships? They’re toxic. Nancy Meyers Ben Affleck Ana de Armas And the mental health issues are… sexy? Barbie Ferreira Jane Adams The media is a target. Katie Walsh,