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The Idol Desperately Craves Your Outrage

Sam Levinson and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye's HBO series promises revolutionary sleaze, but only delivers juvenile provocation so far.
  • Lily-Rose Depp on The Idol (poto: HBO)
    Lily-Rose Depp on The Idol (poto: HBO)

    By the time it premiered on Sunday night, HBO's The Idol was already one of the most controversial TV shows of the year. Dreamed up by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and pop star Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye, the show centers on Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), an up-and-coming pop star undergoing an explicitly sexual career makeover who falls under the psychosexual thrall of nightclub owner Tedros (Tesfaye).

    Given a series order in late 2021, The Idol has been the subject of extensive rumors and behind-the-scenes reports that have cast the show — and Levinson and Tesfaye in particular — in a bad light. A Rolling Stone exposé in March told the story of a TV show that had originally been intended as a "dark satire" about Hollywood's fame machine and a young woman "fighting to reclaim her agency" taking a turn for the exploitative and what was referred to by sources as akin to "sexual torture porn." This coincided with original director Amy Siemetz (The Girlfriend Experience) being forced off the show in favor of Levinson and Tesfaye taking more creative control.

    You'd think that would be bad news for the series. But HBO needs another Sunday night hit, with Succession and Barry having just ended, House of the Dragon not expected back until 2024, and Euphoria not returning until 2025. And the flood of pre-release press has at least created the illusion that The Idol is a big deal.

    Amid the early controversy, HBO has continued to hype up the transgressive nature of the show. The cabler’s own promos framed the series as "the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood," a show from "the twisted minds" of Levinson and Tesfaye. This perception of a TV show that pushes past the boundaries of convention surely helped The Idol land a spot at the Cannes Film Festival, where the first two episodes of the series premiered last month. At the festival, Levinson responded to questions about whether the show's sex scenes go too far by saying, "Sometimes, things that might be revolutionary are taken too far." He also responded to a question about the Rolling Stone exposé with the comment that, "When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and said, 'I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.'"

    Based on the premiere episode “Pop Tarts & Rat Tails," The Idol seems to be more a show that, regardless of whether it is or isn't dangerous in and of itself, is desperate to deliver the veneer of something objectionable in order to provoke the kind of outraged reactions that can push TV shows from buzzy provocation to heated conversation topic.

    Your first big clue that The Idol is courting outrage comes before the show even starts. Depp brings with her everything from "nepo baby" discourse to the gossipy attention paid to her dating life, though in the context of The Idol, the lightning rod of attention that is her father, Johnny Depp, looms largest. The accusations of domestic abuse against the elder Depp dominated celebrity news for months in 2022 and stirred up a hornet's nest of defensive engagement from fans.

    Inasmuch as The Idol remains a satire of Hollywood, the show's strengths are in its supporting cast. Jane Adams, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Hank Azaria, Rachel Sennott, Troye Sivan, and Dan Levy form a web of various managers, handlers, record-company execs, and assistants, all of whom have a hand in shaping Jocelyn the brand. These on-the-fly strategy sessions are purposefully crude, all the better to represent a Hollywood system that is vile, hypocritical, and unconcerned with the well-being of talent. But there's a particular moment with the on-set intimacy coordinator for Jocelyn's racy photo shoot that feels designed to spark outrage.

    The intimacy coordinator steps in as Jocelyn is taking off her already barely-present top to expose her breasts for the photographer. This violates her nudity rider, even though Jocelyn is the one initiating the nudity. This is played as farce, a 2023 Abbott and Costello routine where Jocelyn has no say over her bodily autonomy because of the nudity rider designed to protect her bodily autonomy. It's likely not going to be lost on a lot of people watching the show that Sam Levinson has drawn criticism regarding the sex scenes on his other show, Euphoria, and whether the stars of that show should be more protected from his penchant for writing explicit nude scenes. Not to mention that intimacy coordinators have come to represent a pushback against the on-set excesses that were exposed by the #MeToo movement. By the time Azaria's character is locking the intimacy coordinator in the bathroom to keep him from being a buzzkill, Levinson is practically begging for some of those sweet, sweet angry tweets.

    The presence of Talia (Hari Nef), a profile writer from Vanity Fair, seems similarly intended to provoke. First off, just generally, there's the fact that there is no faster way to get some free ink from journalists than by depicting someone doing journalism "wrong" on screen. But specifically, the push-pull of Talia's obliging tone as she tries to nudge Jocelyn towards specific responses brings to mind Levinson's contentious relationship with entertainment journalists and film critics as depicted in his poorly received 2021 film Malcolm & Marie.

    Of course, it's with the sex scenes that The Idol most aggressively strives to push boundaries and buttons. In that respect, the long lead-up of chatter about how sleazy and transgressive the sex scenes were going to be may have over-inflated expectations. While granting that there are five episodes to go in this first season, and things will certainly get more intense, the sex scene between Jocelyn and Tedros in the first episode feels oddly underwhelming.

    Tedros and Jocelyn’s first sex scene features some 50 Shades of Grey-style bondage, which sets up the sense of predatory violence that will no doubt be explored throughout the series that, when taken in conjunction with the Rolling Stone report, shouldn't just be brushed aside. Primetimer contributor Rafa Sales Ross noted at Cannes that Levinson appears to be doubling down on that which he's been criticized for, with the female nudity "[bypassing] the territory of the insightful straight into the murky patch of the gratuitous."

    But if Sam Levinson is selling these sex scenes as "revolutionary," he's got a long way to go. In his review of the Cannes premiere, Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson called the show's ballyhooed sexuality "oddly prosaic" and awkward, "as if Levinson and his actors are talking dirty for the very first time."

    The Idol and its high-profile stakeholders are counting on those sex scenes to be more than just derivative of 50 Shades of Grey, and certainly more than prosaic. The aggrandizement coming from Levinson, Tesfaye, and HBO only works if what's on screen lives up to the hype. They need The Idol to be the show everybody's arguing about and thus not to be missed on Sunday nights. It's going to take more than a juvenile jab at intimacy coordinators to pull that off.

    The Idol airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and streams on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Idol, HBO, Dan Levy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Hank Azaria, Jane Adams, Lily-Rose Depp, Rachel Sennott, Sam Levinson, Troye Sivan, The Weeknd