‘The Idol’ Isn’t Nearly As Cool As It Thinks It Is

The controversial HBO series is a lazy, lackluster depiction of a vulnerable pop star written by three men.

‘The Idol’ Isn’t Nearly As Cool As It Thinks It Is
Photo:HBO Pressroom

It’s fitting that the first 58 seconds of HBO’s The Idol are a close shot of its half-naked protagonist, Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), being told what to do by a photographer off-camera: “Give me some innocence. And some doe-eyed looks,” he instructs. “Now mischievous. Ok, pure sex now. Give me vulnerable.”

From the outset, the mythos of the series is obvious: Young women like Jocelyn—a pop star fresh off a mental breakdown and a hospital stay—are empowered to be sad, sexy, shy, or sly. Anything below surface level is simply unsellable. Never mind that collective consciousness and criticism of celebrity culture has evolved, nor the fact that one needn’t a fictionalized depiction of a young famous woman to reach the conclusion that Hollywood is rife with vampiric sycophants eager for newer, sexier, weaker prey to suck dry and discard after their first stint in rehab because there’s a wealth of living, breathing examples. No, The Idol is the shined-up shlock we’re getting because three men of meager talent managed to convince a room full of suits at HBO that audiences wanted yet another cautionary tale about what the industry (and anyone directly adjacent to it) does to women.

Now, let me be clear: It’s not that people don’t have a desire for these narratives. It’s that they want them made well, which is to say, not by Sam Levinson or The Weeknd (née Abel Tesfaye). The show also credits a third creator, Reza Fahim, an Iranian refugee who worked as a nightlife producer in L.A. until he quit in 2017 to pursue writing. Apart from The Idol, he has one other known writing credit: an untitled project that also involves Tesfaye.

Since March, we’ve been given credible suspicion that The Idol was probably not going to live up to the hype. Levinson’s reputation and Tesfaye’s misogynistic and homophobic lyrics aside, a bombshell report from Rolling Stone revealed that the series had devolved into “a shitshow” of rewrites, reshoots, and—from the sounds of it—really disturbing redirection. According to more than 10 sources, production had suffered since April 2022, when its director, Amy Seimetz, abruptly exited despite completing “80 percent” of the series. That month, a “creative overhaul” was reported by Deadline, with Levinson’s co-creator, Tesfaye, reportedly feeling that the show was leaning too far toward a “female perspective.”

Though Tesfaye has denied this, dare I say that the proof is in almost every still. An early argument between an on-set intimacy coordinator and Jocelyn’s manager, Chaim (Hank Azaria), is of particular egregiousness. As Jocelyn shoots the cover of her forthcoming album, she bares her breasts despite a “nudity rider” that stipulates against visible areola. Jocelyn asserts it’s “her body” and argues for nudity in what sounds an awful lot like a bad faith-feminist diatribe. Her manager and various—frustratingly unidentified—members of her team agree. What’s confounding here though is that the nudity rider—as stated by the intimacy coordinator—was previously established and agreed upon by her team, as was his presence on set. Did Jocelyn and co. just…change their minds? Is her own inner turmoil—you know, the thing we’re repeatedly reminded she has but learn little of—so great that she simply has to have her tits out? We don’t know! Because Chaim locks the intimacy coordinator in a closet. That’s right, HBOone of the first networks to institute intimacy coordinators on its productions thanks to The Deuce star, Emily Meade—co-signed a scene in which an intimacy coordinator is violently removed from a set…

Of course, the shitty wannabe subversive jokes about how feminists are victims, the scene where Jocelyn masturbates with one hand while using another to choke herself, and the incessant nudity that’s probably supposed to communicate vulnerability but doesn’t are worth noting too. And frankly, I don’t have enough energy to touch Jocelyn’s single (lyrics: “So get down on your knees, get ready to become my bitch. I’m just a freak, yeah!”). All of the aforementioned are indicators that men who don’t know women quite as intuitively as they think they do are to blame for how “comically bad” this series turned out. They also summon to mind a quote from a production source in the Rolling Stone report: “What I signed up for was a dark satire of fame and the fame model in the 21st century. It went from satire to the thing it was satirizing.”

Believe it or not—save for Tesfaye, who is truly abysmal—there are talented people in The Idol. When she’s not smoking or doing the whole deliberate drowsiness thing, Depp is transfixing on camera. Rachel Sennott, as her assistant and best friend, Leia, is fun to watch, though I hope she’s tasked with more going forward. In fact, I’d like to see HBO cut her a fat check to write a superior spin-off. But no performance will make me return, because I’m fairly certain I will inevitably be disappointed with their character’s trajectory. Unless Jocelyn or Leia (or both) murder Tedros.

By now, all of The Idol’s very valid criticism—from the Lifetime movie-worthy dialogue to Tesfaye’s deeply upsetting rattail—is likely permeating everyone’s timeline. Though some of the critique—the human cum sock controversy, specifically—is a tad overblown (pun intended), I agree with the lion’s share. It’s an irredeemably bad show that not only offers no nuance on a lecherous industry, rape culture, mental health, or trauma specific to survivors thus far, but is also not nearly as smart, edgy, or cool as it thinks it is.

Frankly, neither of those realities should be any surprise. It’s made by men who simply aren’t creative enough to tell a tale about exploitation without, well, exploiting people.

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