‘The Idol’ of Waste

HBO’s new drama lays bare the worst excesses of Warner Brothers-Discovery and ‘prestige’ television in general

There’s a moment in the premiere episode of The Idol that reveals a lot more than what was probably intended. Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a struggling young pop star, and her loyal assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott), are on a sofa watching the classic erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. It’s a groan-worthy choice. Much like Basic Instinct, The Idol arrives with a hugely controversial reputation along with speculation that, much like what the aforementioned film did for Sharon Stone, it’s going to be Depp’s star-making turn. Whether this will be the work that launches Depp’s career into the stratosphere remains to be seen. What I can say is this scene reveals the creators broke one of the fundamental rules when it comes to film and television:

Never remind the viewers they could be watching something better and/or more fun that what they are currently viewing.

The Idol is about Jocelyn and her attempts to regain control of her career after her moth(er)’s death and a public breakdown. Those in her orbit are pushing for her to release a radio-friendly single before embarking on a global tour. At the same time, Jocelyn catches the eye of Tedros (The “Abel Tesfaye” Weeknd), a nightclub owner and cult leader who inserts himself more and more into her life. In the two episodes watched for review, there’s about 30 minutes of plot stretched out to two hours. I have a deep appreciation for series that take a leisurely approach with their narrative and allow the viewers to become immersed in the world and gain a deep connection with the characters. This is decidedly not the case here. What’s left is a series that underwent such a tumultuous production that it has no idea what it wants to be.

Any review or editorial about The Idol is inevitably going to address the backstage drama concerning this series, and this piece is no different. For the unfamiliar, earlier this year Rolling Stone published an explosive exposé about the show’s chaotic and troubled production. Tesfaye whined about how the show’s original vision leaned “too much into a female perspective.” The original director Amy Seimetz left the project after 80% of it was filmed. Sam Levinson, one of the co-creators (along with Reza Fahim and Tesfaye), was brought on board to essentially reshoot and recast the entire show; apparently he had no idea what he wanted and instead leaned into the seamiest clichés of ‘prestige television’ storytelling. Shortly after the report dropped, Tesfaye responded with a glib potshot against Rolling Stone, adding more fuel to the fire. Following the series’ inexplicable premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it earned an avalanche of pans and now holds the distinction of being one of the most critically reviled productions HBO has ever done. With all of this messiness, one yearns for The Devil’s Candy treatment for this series.

Given the drama has become one of the pop culture lightning rods of the year, how it allegedly went from being a dark look at a young woman who falls into a cult and struggles to escape to allegedly becoming “sexual torture porn” and a “glorified rape fantasy,” The Idol should not be *this* boring. I have no idea what I expected, but something 10 energy levels higher would have been a good start. As it is, The Idol fails as a dark satire of the music industry, a character study of a young woman trying to regain her sense of self, and as a crude sexploitation shocker. It succeeds in creating a new genre of filmmaking: no-core porn.

From the start, The Idol tries to have it two ways. On one level it wants to be a disturbing yet witty look at how sausage is made in the showbiz factory, a la films like The Player and TV series like UnREAL. On another level it wants to be an ultra-sleazy fairy tale, something that Shannon Tweed would have done back in the day, minus any campy fun. Each scene tries to straddle these two perspectives and instead of being thorny and thought-provoking, it feels like a half-assed copout. Take for example a scene in the premiere episode involving an intimacy coordinator. Jocelyn is in the middle of a saucy photoshoot leading up to the release of her comeback single. She’s on edge following a public breakdown which happened shortly after her mother’s death, a plot point mentioned about 12,000 times. During the shoot, she reveals her breasts and the intimacy coordinator steps in saying that it went beyond what was agreed and there needs to be a 48 hour period for the contract to be renegotiated. Chaim (Hank Azaria), one of Jocelyn’s co-managers, wants to press ahead with the shoot and Jocelyn repeatedly asserts that she feels safe and is okay with proceeding topless. The intimacy coordinator pushes back against this, repeatedly insisting that the shoot needs to be stopped. In a “hilarious” series of hijinks, Chaim gets the intimacy coordinator locked in a bathroom so the shoot can proceed undisturbed.

What does one make of this? In capable hands, I can imagine this being a genuinely provocative and interesting look at how the industry makes nods toward progress (more diversity, safe working conditions, etc) before devolving into arbitrary box-ticking and bureaucracy instead of meaningful change. No doubt that’s what Levinson, Tesfaye, and co. likely thought they were satirizing. However, by making the intimacy coordinator character a total fucking weenie and going out of the way to show Jocelyn as not needing his support, the whole thing collapses into a stupid, sour, terminally lame joke. It’s just more evidence of a show that seems to have mistaken “acidic satire” with “just piss people off.” It feels less like South Park and more like Family Guy.

Sam Levinson has understandably got a lion’s share of the scorn for the series and it’s easy to see why: a Hollywood nepo baby with a growing reputation for chaotic production shoots and a deep interest in adding as much sex, violence, and misery into his work as possible. Those who know me know I’m a huge fan of Euphoria, the show that put him on the map and in the crosshairs of many critics, the show’s fans included, for being excessive for the sake of excessive. For all the criticism that series gets regarding its sensationalist extremities (and a similarly troubled second season production), it has some remarkable strengths, first and foremost being a tremendous cast and a magnificent central performance from Zendaya. Similarly, Levinson can be a fantastic writer when it comes to depicting addiction and the painful road to recovery, which helps anchor the drama when some of the other subplots become messy and/or ridiculous. But more than anything, Euphoria has a genuine curiosity and interest in its characters, which is something The Idol fundamentally lacks. Every blow they experience feels hollow, every humiliation is yawn-worthy in its cruelty, and it’s just too much effort to give much of a damn about any of this. Where did it all go so wrong?

This trainwreck has three conductors and Tesfaye is my choice for what caused the series to fly off the rails. His whining about the original version being too “female-focused” suggests he wants this show to a dark and seductive fairy tale: Beauty and the Beast for the music industry. What may have worked as a music video fails here and is certainly not helped by his spectacularly vapid, charisma-free performance. Every line reading is flat, every “brooding stare” is dead-eyed, and when he tries to talk dirty, as seen at the end of Episode 2, it’s so hilariously unconvincing, he sounds more like a junior high troll who discovered Pornhub for the first time. Keeping with the show’s “have its cake and eat it too” ethos, I’m sure those involved will say that’s the point, he’s supposed to be repulsive much like other cult leaders like Keith Raniere and Charles Manson. To which say… gimme a fucking break. If that were the case, Tesfaye wouldn’t have an issue with the original “female perspective.” This is more like a vanity project where he gets to do his version of Dracula. It’s enervating in the extreme.

The rest of the cast fairs better, but only can do so much. Jane Adams, as a ruthless executive, and Hank Azaria, as one of Jocelyn’s unscrupulous mangers, opt to make an absolute meal out of the scenery. Rachel Sennott and Da’Vine Joy Randolph bring some much needed bone-dry wit, while Hari Nef and Troye Sivan have the understated coolness that makes their wafer-thin characters at least appear human. At its centre, it’s Lily-Rose Depp’s show and seeing her try so valiantly to make it all work is the one genuinely tragic thing about The Idol. In the second episode, there’s a scene where Jocelyn’s nerves and perfectionist streak derail a music video shoot. The camera lingers on her tears, the bloody blisters, the feeling of a woman who is exceptionally close to snapping. In a better series, it would be a gut-punch. Here it’s an irritating look at an actress giving it all for a production that refuses to meet her even a fraction of the way.

The Idol aspires to be a taboo-smashing work of deranged genius, but instead is a haphazard soap opera trapped in amber. Under these circumstances, it’s the kind of trash that is better to be flushed and forgotten. What particularly stings is how this show managed to get so many expensive reshoots, so many opportunities to have the higher-ups attempt to pull it back from the brink, and *this* is what we got. I’ll admit this is a broader gripe against the direction Warner Bros-Discovery has taken since acquiring HBO, specifically how many well-made, creative, and quirky series were cancelled and scrubbed from the archive. I know the creatives involved in The Idol had no influence in what got cancelled and what didn’t. But given just how extraordinarily lucky they were to have made it this far, what they delivered is just salt in the wound.

But perhaps this is the perfect metaphor for new HBO programming under Zaslav: the TV equivalent to a bloody booger served on gorgeous china.