REVIEW: 'The Idol'

On HBO's unduly hated midbrow romp

(Credit: IMDb)
July 8, 2023

The Idol—HBO and A24's salacious chronicle of the fall and rebirth of sexpot pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) and her mutually destructive relationship with lover/muse/abusive cult leader Tedros Tedros (The Weeknd, né Abel Tesfaye)—earned a rare trifecta, taking heat from high-minded critics, the Parents Television Council, and puritanical Gen Z scolds alike, all of whom were tremendously put out by the show and its unwavering commitment to hedonistic nudity. Though far from perfect, The Idol is both an amusing throwback to HBO's origins as a venue dedicated to the production of near-prurient televisual entertainment and also a scathing indictment of the entertainment-industrial complex's efforts to manufacture, and then maintain, stardom.

You knew the knives would be out for The Idol early on. The series opens with Jos showing more skin during an album cover photo shoot than her nudity rider allowed, prompting a squeamish "intimacy coordinator" in a man bun to comically attempt to intervene. (Nipples are no good, but "side boob, underboob, and the side flank" are all fine, according to her enlightened knight.) His complaints make little sense—no one is being exploited here; the star herself is the one pushing the envelope; if The Idol wasn't allowed to show Jos's nipples each episode would be about 15 minutes shorter—yet he demands that the shoot shut down until she revises her rider and waits 48 hours to make sure she really wants to take her clothes off. This prompts co-manager Chaim (Hank Azaria, sporting a fantastically comic Israeli accent) to lock the adviser in a bathroom and pay a passerby $5,000 to keep the door shut so they can do the nude scene in peace.

One thing I've long admired about Sam Levinson, the executive producer and director of four episodes of the show, is his willingness to work out his personal-professional beefs in the context of his work. It's one reason so many critics hated Malcolm & Marie, his two-hander for Netflix shot during the pandemic in which one of the characters (a director, as it happens) rants about an idiot film critic for the Los Angeles Times (a newspaper whose critic had savaged one of his films, as it happens), who mistook one cinematic technique for another. That level of pettiness—and the howls of outrage he knows it is likely to prompt—is almost admirable; as a connoisseur of spite, I know the good stuff when I see it. One can only imagine Levinson's annoyance with coordinators of intimacy on the set of Euphoria, his show about the scuzzy world of young adult sexuality. And one can't help but laugh out loud when an intimacy coordinator said, likely with tears welling in her eyes, that she was "appalled," that she "felt really betrayed," that she couldn't believe anyone would dare "[use] us as the butt of a joke." Some things are just off limits, you know.

The Idol is a mildly frustrating show because it's really two shows, one of which is quite interesting and the other of which is… tolerable.

The more interesting show is the one that revolves around Chaim, his fellow co-manager Destiny (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), manipulative record label exec Nikki Katz (Jane Adams), and the desperately put-upon, yet still somehow exploitative Live Nation representative Andrew Finkelstein (Eli Roth, in the role he was born to play). When The Idol is at its strongest, it's following these characters as they try to navigate the exceedingly complicated world of pop stardom. Talent matters, of course, but as Nikki understands all too well, these pop starlets are almost interchangeable (and, indeed, she tries to exchange a new bright young thing for Jos when Jos is hesitant to perform the song the label has procured for her). More important than manipulating the public and the press—a hovering Vanity Fair reporter watches the season unfold, and it's kind of funny to see both how much fear her presence inspires and easily influenced she is—is steering the whims of the singer herself.

Lily-Rose Depp in 'The Idol' (credit: IMDb)

The Idol is a little like a demented version of Entourage, one in which we're not really supposed to sympathize with the star and her hangers-on like Leia (Rachel Sennott) so much as pity them as they attempt to survive Jos's mood swings and her abusive new boyfriend-cum-producer, Tedros. Which brings us to the second, less-interesting half of The Idol: the relationship between Jos and Tedros, which has one giant, glaring problem. The show presupposes Tedros as this amazingly charismatic figure, and I have no doubt that sort of individual exists in Hollywood—perhaps The Weeknd is that charismatic in real life!—but it simply doesn't show up on the screen. The frustrating thing is that Tedros is an interesting character and I kinda-sorta understand what The Weeknd and Levinson were going for with his harem of talented, discarded young people like the nymphet Chloe (Suzanna Son), who is prone to playing piano in the nude, or the Sisqó-like Izaak (Moses Sumney). But he completely lacks the onscreen magnetism needed for us to buy that Jos—who is played with a fascinating variety of dead-eyed sensuality by Lily-Rose Depp that makes her both appealing and mildly terrifying—is the sort of person who might fall under his sway.

And while you might chalk up the late-season reversal—in which she becomes the dominant player in their pair, in which the full grotesquerie of their codependency is revealed, in which we see how her status as an idol allows her to abuse the abuser—to that very lack of magnetism (turns out pop stars were the real cult leaders all along, don'tcha know), it doesn't change the fact that the pairing fundamentally breaks the willing suspension of disbelief in the early going.

The final two episodes of The Idol are borderline great: There's something darkly alluring about watching Jos turn the tables on Tedros even as Tedros manipulates the Hollywood press to get Jos's movie star ex-boyfriend falsely accused of sexual assault, and the interactions between Finkelstein, Chaim, and Nikki in the final episode are laugh-out-loud funny. One can't help but wish there had been a slightly less bumpy path to getting there, however.

Sonny Bunch is culture editor of the Bulwark, where he hosts the podcasts Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, and is a contributing columnist at the Washington Post.

Published under: HBO , TV Reviews