With the recent release of Sam Levinson’s latest HBO show, The Idol, the controversy and criticism surrounding the hotly debated writer/director have only seemed to intensify for better or for worse. Levinson was born into a family that had already stamped their authority in the world of the Hollywood film industry and so it didn’t come as a surprise that he too would follow suite, making his directorial debut in 2011 with Another Happy Day. Levinson’s debut was lukewarm to say the least, the film largely went under the radar and has increasingly become his forgotten film as most people will recognise his earlier work from Assassination Nation onwards. Speaking of his follow up film, this assisted in creating a bigger buzz for the newfound director managing to reach a wider audience who were pretty divided on his second feature. On one hand it was lauded as an extreme satirical horror that encapsulated the abrasive lifestyle of a younger generation but it also gave rise to the rumblings of what would go on to become Levinson’s signature style of using excessive exploitation in a maximalist directing style to no great effect. Despite the knocks against Levinson’s filmography, it was clearly enough for him to land Euphoria on HBO in 2019. This has unquestionably gone on to become Levinson’s most well-known work as season 1 became a global sensation and had what felt like the entirety of social media tuning in every week. At the height of his success Levinson chased this up with Malcom & Marie in 2021 and The Idol which have once again called his talent into question.
Before The Idol had a chance to make its premiere earlier this week, it had already introduced itself to the mass media through the viral Rolling Stone’s article that detailed the unfiltered opinion of crew members that worked on the show. To no one’s surprise it was revealed that the biggest theme that would be launched to the forefront of this new show was the exploitation and degradation of women that we’ve come to expect from the writer/director. Whilst this was somewhat refuted by the cast and creators, there was never really a convincing justification of the themes that were going to become the central focus of this story. Now, this could be in large part due to the showing having only aired 1 episode at the time of writing this and if we’re going to being completely fair, a conclusive opinion cannot be formed off of one episode we will have to wait until the entire body of work has played out to provide a well-informed review.
If we take a look at Levinson’s past work we can see a theme that starts to emerge when it comes to his handling of female characters. Their identities rarely move beyond the sexualised ideals that have been placed on them and just like that any hope of using a female voice to offer a worthwhile contribution to a complex conversation surrounding the interaction of sexuality between the character themselves, those around them and society is soon shot down in favour of a fantasised version of a woman that does not exist in the real world. The overbearing and unnecessary use of nudity that Levinson often utilises in his work has not gone unnoticed by those in front of the camera as one of Euphoria’s most prominent leads, Sydney Sweeney, has commented on how the nudity in essence erases the other work that she has done as the explicit scenes steal the conversation away from the overarching story. If these scenes served a genuine purpose to elevate the progression of the character there would of course still be conversation but it would tie into a larger picture that is personable and necessary to the character. In this instance it looks as through the level nudity that is seen with Sweeney’s character becomes more of a distracting focal point that cannot be reined in by the story of Cassie. Sweeney’s co-star Minka Kelly also had to push back against the original nude scenes that had been penciled into the script by Levinson as she just “didn’t feel comfortable standing there naked”. As noted by both actors, Levinson was quick to agree to these changes and remove the nude scenes which was the right decision but it also begs the question, if these scenes were so integral to the characters why could they be removed so easily without having any sort of impact on the wider story?
The explicit depiction of female characters is not the only trope that has become a crutch for Levinson over the span of his career, there is also a long-standing motif of female suffering. From Euphoria to Malcom & Marie to Assassination Nation, each project refuses to approach their female characters with enough care to add any depth to their story that would make them meaningful or relatable to the audience watching. If they can’t push the sexualised fantasy that Levinson has so frequently used in his work they are instead subjected to a story of suffering that seems to look more like an inescapable punishment for something that they have not done, or in some cases they fall victim to both. The society that Levinson builds in his worlds actually do reflect the prejudiced treatment that women receive in the real world and the ideas behind Euphoria and Assassination Nation are extremely timely and relatable to the audiences that they appeal to. They start important conversations whether that’s surrounding internet culture, drugs or relationships but just as the conversation starts to pick up steam it gets derailed, it doesn’t really go anywhere productive nor does it offer any strong opinions that feel fully formed. Levinson has managed to capture the aesthetic on Gen Z but mistakes this for accurately representing the underbelly of a generation in which he only sits above the surface of.
So, what’s been the audience’s reaction to Sam Levinson? Well it was confusing. As previously mentioned the reaction to Assassination Nation was split, it has its detractors but it was also applauded for its boldly striking take on the internet era. Once Season 1 of Euphoria made its debut in 2019, it was for the most part lauded as the tv show to watch, there were rave reviews and social media crowned it as a new cultural classic. Euphoria was all that people could talk about from week to week as it captured the zeitgeist of the internet era but as Levinson looked to capitalise off of this success with his upcoming projects, the admiration for his work quickly began to dissipate. The release of Malcom& Marie marked the turning point for Levinson as the public perception of his work began to get pulled apart, which ironically was a prominent focus of his Netflix debut, the reviews were less than stellar as they highlighted the pretentious nature of the film and it’s inability to convey anything worthwhile. From here on out the negative reviews began to compound for Levinson as the second season of Euphoria was not met with the same widespread success of season 1, in fact it left many wondering how the same man that wrote season 1 also wrote season 2.
It’s well known at this point that Levinson doesn’t have a writer’s room, and if you didn’t know you only need to skim through the second season of Euphoria before it becomes glaringly obvious. Levinson seems to think that the Tyler Perry school of writing is the key to quality writing and it couldn’t be further from the truth. The central character of Rue is largely based off of Levinson’s own experiences and you can tell, Rue is perhaps the only character in the show that feels fully fleshed out, she feels like someone you know and allows the audience to build up a personal connection, making the emotional turmoil that she goes through resonate even stronger. However, when he is left to build new characters from the ground up, this is when the issues arise. One of Euphoria’s most engaging episodes was centered around Jules and it made me reconsider if Levinson had been underestimated and actually had the ability to expand and display a new perspective, this consideration was short lived as I soon found out that Hunter Schafer had written the episode which made much more sense as to why it felt so much more poignant and carefully crafted compared he the rest of the season. This perfectly encapsulates the problem with Levinson’s writing, he is unable to capture an authentic retelling of a perspective that differs from his own.
As we now sink our teeth into another Sam Levinson project we will see if there has been any progression from the writer/director in how he tackles stories that diverge from his own, or will he mold another opposing viewpoint into one that emulates what he deems to be acceptable, stripping it of all originality? Looking to the future it will be interesting to see how Levinson revives his already existing shows that feature heavy doses of female sexualisation and also how he tackles upcoming projects given the history of his previous work. As his work is often predicated on appealing to the youth of today it does make me wonder if he will continue with his current style of writing/directing as society as a whole seems to be moving away from the oversexualisation that we’ve become accustomed to in mainstream pop culture. Levinson’s previous work existed in a climate that supported it’s creation as on a base level his shows/films mirrored what we saw in mass media on a daily basis but as the general mood has changed and no longer holds the display of sexual liberation in the same regard that it once did , will this be reflected in Levinson’s future work? If we’re judging by what’s been seen in The Idol so far then the short answer is no, but following the second season of Euphoria it looks as though some of Levinson’s fans are already starting to turn away from him due to his repetitive choice to misrepresent women’s trauma, contradictory plot points and display of dysfunctional relationships that always see women as the casualty.
Overall, Levinson’s work hasn’t come without its own success, but even then it’s been focused on the actors involved as opposed to Levinson himself, Zendaya’s Emmy awards for her role in Euphoria should not be conflated with the actual quality of the show itself. If we were to provide an final conclusion on Levinson’s work from 2011-2023 there are definitely high moments but they are far and few between, his projects are usually style over substance as they heavily rely on an aesthetic appeal to draw the viewer in as opposed to the actual direction and writing on the show. Once the draw of the big names subside you are left to analyse work that tries to be much smarter than it actually is, as seen in Malcolm & Marie, or there are glaring plot holes and disjointed character development arcs which may begin to make some sense when you delve into Levinson’s writing process. Despite all of the different characters that Levinson has used in his work it’s painfully obvious that they’ve all been crafted through the lens of a straight white man. Writing a show with a female lead whilst agreeing that it also has too much of a female perspective should be a big enough warning sign for anyone looking to get into Levinson’s work. There is always room to grow but looking at Levinson’s current trajectory, I don’t think we’ll be moving on from the hypersexual imagery, bare-boned writing and monolithic point of view any time soon.