'The Idol' Is Just as Superficial as You'd Expect

Created by Sam Levinson

Starring Lily-Rose Depp, Abel Tesfaye, Dan Levy, Rachel Sennott, Hank Azaria

Photo: Eddy Chen / HBO

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 5, 2023

After a rocky lead-up marked by accusations of a toxic set and "torture porn," the first episode of The Idol is here — and despite the apparent chaos behind the scenes, the show evades most of the obvious criticisms against it. Is it icky in the way it glorifies depraved sex and drug use? Well, that's kind of the point. Is it vapid and superficial? That's simply a reflection of the celebrity culture it portrays. The Idol is everything you think it's going to be — and proudly so.

The key line of the premiere, titled "Pop Tarts & Rat Tales," is delivered by label exec Nikki Katz (Jane Adams), who explains to a male colleague why a hospital bracelet is being used as a prop in a raunchy photoshoot: "She is still never, ever going to fuck you, unless she has some very, very serious mental problems — and that right there is why mental illness is sexy."

The latest show from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson revels in the leering male gaze, as it glamorously portrays the self-destructive life of a pop star who is always on the edge of either a breakdown or an orgasm. It's highly sexual, and yet somehow never sexy, tiptoeing a line between critiquing the vapidness of celebrity culture and participating in it.

Lily-Rose Depp plays the pop star Jocelyn, and Depp isn't given all that much to work with in terms of dialogue or character development. She does the heavy lifting with her facial expressions, doing a good job at conveying a deep well of inner emotion despite a lack of exposition.

All the best dialogue is given to supporting actors: a harried Rachel Sennott as the long-suffering best friend and personal assistant, Dan Levy as a frazzled publicist, and Hank Azaria doing an Eastern European accent that he definitely won't regret later. The first half of the first episode concerns the comedy that ensues when a risqué photo of Jocelyn leaks onto the internet — a crass storyline that's largely an excuse for Levy to make cum jokes, which he does impeccably.

The weakest link is the Weeknd, as Abel Tesfaye plays a cheeseball nightclub impresario (and apparent cult guru) who catches Jocelyn's eye. Apart from his sheer persistence, it's not clear why Jocelyn supposedly takes a liking to the guy, given his wooden delivery, stiff facial expressions and hairstyle that she openly mocks. He's supposed to convey a sleazy charisma — but so far, he only really gets the sleazy part right.

In the final moments of the episode, The Idol gets a little raunchier and 50 Shades-esque, suggesting that it might well veer into the "torture porn" that audiences have been warned about. But for the bulk of the first episode, this is balanced with enough moody noir and spooky synths that it goes down easy. The cinematography is beautiful, swooping around the compound and catching characters from odd angles, showing why Jocelyn's lifestyle is as alluring as it is unsustainable. 

The Weeknd has always had a fascination with the seedier side of sex and drugs, dating back to his earliest mixtapes. Perhaps The Idol can become as compelling as House of Balloons, but for the moment it's more appealing for its glitzy aesthetic than for its cultural commentary.

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