The Shadowy Career of Sam Levinson


Sam Levinson, best known for creating the HBO series Euphoria, is one of Hollywood’s most talked about nepo babies. The son of the beloved Rain Man director, Barry Levinson, Sam crawled out of his father’s shadow by making, well, shadowy cinematic art—using noir lighting and surrealist imagery to convey the gritty realities of American youth. After riding the high of his award-winning film, Assassination Nation (2018), Levinson wrote the dazzling and controversial series, Euphoria, which garnered cosmic acclaim for casting Disney actress Zendaya as its charismatic down-in-the-gutter protagonist and making Gen-Zer’s around the globe go mad for glittery eye makeup and LED lights.

Euphoria has been praised for its intense performances and dark and dreamy aesthetic. However, a storm of viral posts on X (formerly known as Twitter), recently uncovered an interview given by director-photographer Petra Collins, who claimed Levinson took her aesthetic as direct inspiration for Euphoria without crediting her. This isn’t the first time Sam Levinson has steamrolled a female collaborator and taken all the credit for himself, like the creative mutiny that happened behind the scenes on The Idol, and his track record with young actresses isn’t great either.

Let’s investigate the shadowy career of Sam Levinson and why he continues to be one of the most problematic filmmakers in Hollywood today:

Cultural Appropriation and Representation: Levinson, a white cis-gendered male, has been accused of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. One of the chief criticisms is his portrayal of characters of color, especially when they delve into complex themes like addiction, sexuality, and trauma. Some critics argue that Levinson uses Black and Brown characters as a “shield” to indulge his own fantasies and frustrations with society, ultimately reducing these characters to harmful stereotypes because he cannot relate to or accurately convey the nuanced experiences of marginalized people.

Explicit Content Involving Minors: Though the actors in Euphoria are adults, they portray teenagers often in explicit over-the-top scenarios (*ahem* Cassie), which has raised concerns about the normalization of sexualizing minors, specifically young girls. Levinson has defended his work by stating that the show is a realistic portrayal of what teenagers go through. However, the assumption that every teenager is or wants to be sexually active is incredibly ignorant. There is a line between realism and exploitation, and Levinson often crosses it by hypersexualizing (white, thin, blonde) women for male voyeuristic consumption.

Personal Experiences versus Universal Storytelling: Levinson has been open about the fact that Euphoria draws heavily from his personal experiences, including his struggles with addiction. While personal experiences can be a powerful tool in storytelling, some critics argue that Levinson’s work can feel too self-indulgent, like when John David Washington’s character in Malcolm & Marie (2021) rebukes a white female critic for playing into identity politics in her critique of his film. This “fictional” female critic in Malcolm & Marie clearly echoes LA Times critic Katie Walsh who wrote a disdainful review of Levinson’s prior film, Assassination Nation. Levinson has shown time and time again that when it comes to storytelling, he will prioritize his own narrative over the genuine experiences of the diverse characters he portrays.

Treatment of Female Characters: There has been a lot of discussion around Levinson’s portrayal of female characters, from Assassination Nation to Lily-Rose Depp’s violent entanglement with Tedros (The Weeknd) in The Idol. While many of his female characters are multi-dimensional, largely due to the actresses’ talented performances, they are often subjected to unnecessary trauma. The issue of male directors exploiting female trauma as a dramatic device isn’t new, but Levinson’s recent works seem to revel in the abuse and sexualization of young women. This is concerning to see in a post #MeToo Hollywood, which was supposed to usher in a new wave of accountability and safety in the entertainment industry. However, Sam Levinson’s major successes and collaboration with HBO emphasize a more insidious trend in Hollywood: trauma porn masked as High Art.

Conflict with Collaborators: There have been rumors and reports of Levinson falling out with female collaborators throughout his career. Aside from the nudity clauses and writing off the one plus-sized character on Euphoria, Levinson was accused of “dialing up the disturbing content” on The Idol after director Amy Seimetz left due to creative differences with The Weeknd. According to Seimetz, The Weeknd who was an executive producer on the show felt she was leaning too much into the “female perspective.” Seimetz’s retelling of events to Rolling Stone was corroborated by 13 sources on the production team. In January 2023, Hungarian photographer Petra Collins told Punkt that Levinson had approached her to direct part of Euphoria, which was heavily inspired by her photos. According to Collins, HBO ended up firing her after five months of working on the show for being “too young.” Collins has received zero contributor credits on Euphoria, which has become a multi-million dollar hit for the network since it premiered in 2019.

Reception and Approach to Criticism: Artists often face criticism for making subversive content but how they handle that criticism can be very telling about their character. Levinson has continued to disengage from discourse about the commodification of trauma and abuse in Hollywood. He even chortles at the outrage as he told the press after The Idol series premiere: “We know we’re making a show that’s provocative. It’s not lost on us. But it’s an odd one. When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I just said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’” Levinson could not have been more wrong; The Idol ended up being “the flop of the summer” and lost the network millions of dollars.

Conclusion: The controversies surrounding Sam Levinson are multifaceted. Some view him as a groundbreaking artist who isn’t afraid to push boundaries to address real-world issues. Others see him as a cultural appropriator who projects his ego onto characters of color and glamorizes abuse. Whether you appreciate his work or find it problematic, the broader conversations it has evoked reflect the zeitgeist of today. As audiences become more aware of the implications of on-screen representation, privileged Hollywood creators like Levinson will continue to face scrutiny.

It’s hard not to wonder what Euphoria could have been if Petra Collins had taken the helm or co-directed with Levinson. Perhaps fans would have responded differently to a woman portraying the dark realities of adolescence. But I suppose we’ll never know…

Sources Cited

Daniels, Robert. “How using a black actor to vent white frustration sinks Malcolm & Marie.” The Guardian, 5, February 2021.

Handler, Rachel. “Sam Levinson on The Idol: ‘Things That Might Be Revolutionary Are Taken Too Far.” Vulture, 23, May 2023.

Picado, Claudia. “Did Sam Levinson Rip Off Another Director’s Aesthetic for ‘Euphoria’?” Collider, 16, September 2023.

Roundtree, Cheyenne. “The Idol: How HBO’s next ‘Euphoria’ Became Twisted ‘Torture Porn.” Rolling Stone, 1, March 2023.
Walsh, Katie. “Review: ‘Assassination Nation’ is exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture on grrrl power.” Los Angeles Times, 20, September 2018.