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HBO’s The Idol should just be funny

The “edgy” sex at the center of The Idol is the least interesting part of the show.

A young woman sits at a stage dressing table mirror looking dazed while wearing a barely there costume.
Lily-Rose Depp in HBO’s The Idol.
Eddy Chen/HBO
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There was a time before porn was widely available on the internet when horny teenage boys had to be resourceful. Stealing Playboys and Penthouses from older siblings; ruining their eyesight watching scrambled, discolored, wavy boobs on the Spice Channel; mentally cataloging which R-rated movies had nudity; staying up past midnight and tuning into Cinemax After Dark.

Watching The Idol, which premiered on HBO this month, it’s easy to believe these virgin gremlins are exactly who created the hour-long drama.

Officially, Sam Levinson (Euphoria, Malcolm & Marie), Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. the singer The Weeknd), and nightlife entrepreneur Reza Fahim are behind this supposedly “prestige” drama about the jagged, gory bits of stardom. The show premiered two episodes at the Cannes Film Festival, which added to its edgy reputation, while Tesfaye’s involvement invites a meta-narrative, as he himself is a pop star who has visually and musically tried to break and reinvent his image multiple times.

The three, however, have been criticized for not creating a show with something specific to say about idol worship or how simultaneously valuable and worthless fame can be, so much as a nipple-forward, soft-core porn series that thinks itself too serious to be called that.

Given the handful of shallowly written episodes we’ve seen so far, The Idol is actually both shows at once. Underneath its desperate, pulsating, virgin horniness is a canny, bleak comedy about the nefarious people in a pop star’s orbit — the people whose talent is to manage, support, create, and make money off the actual talent. They’re vampires who walk in the Bel Air sun, horrendously greedy and relentlessly disappointed.

That’s a far better show, and one that, frustratingly, The Idol seems less interested in being.

The Idol is Phantom of the Opera, but with more boobs

Even though she possesses a name that’s destined for an office job, the swarm of publicists and managers and Live Nation promoters who orbit Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) tell us that she is the brightest star in the music universe, even as she’s coming back to music after a mental breakdown and the death of her mother.

Jocelyn’s team has orchestrated a sexy single called “World Class Sinner” that they hope, and Jocelyn hopes, will affirm the return of pop music’s bad-girl princess. Though she and her team both crave success, they have disparate views of what that looks like. Jocelyn wants to be an artist that resembles something closer to her true self. Her team wants Jocelyn to sell records.

Being “bad” in pop music, of course, is very different from real-life villainy: It’s almost always expressed in sexual naughtiness. No one can really be that bad or that wild if they’re in the business of selling music to millions of consumers. Levinson and Tesfaye drive this home with Jocelyn’s painfully innocuous single (which Tesfaye co-wrote). “I’m a good girl gone bad,” Jocelyn purrs. “Get in the car, drive fast, get on the road, and take off my clothes.”

The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol.
Eddy Chen/HBO

Even Jocelyn admits to the hollowness of her song. She wonders to her best friend-slash-personal assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) if the whole thing is cheesy.

What Jocelyn wants is to be badder — badder than this song and what the people around her will tolerate. Jocelyn smokes cigarettes. Jocelyn has sex. Jocelyn takes nudes, one of which goes viral in the first episode. Jocelyn also seems to enjoy having her nipples out, facing the world. This isn’t brilliant writing but it is, alas, what we’re given.

Good girls would also never go to a club and have a one-night stand with a rat-tailed dude named Tedros (Tesfaye). But Jocelyn does. Jocelyn has never met a man like Tedros before because usually men with rat tails aren’t as confident, and, I guess, they usually aren’t as knowledgeable about music. The club owner even has a line about Prince’s pop music genius, which seems absolutely profound to Jocelyn (and exponentially less profound to anyone not Jocelyn).

The whole tale is a hornier version of the Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacular about an ingénue named Christine who becomes a star singer under the tutelage of a guy who’s literally an underground producer. Lloyd Webber’s gothic extravaganza explores the idea of psychosexual obsession, perversion, and darkness as part of an artistic seduction. The Phantom wants Christine for himself, manipulating her with each visit — much to the ire of her high-society circle.

Tedros = Phantom. Jocelyn = Christine. But instead of teaching her how to become a better singer by crooning at her, Tedros introduces her to what Levinson and Tesfaye want you to believe is kinky sex. The illicitness of the sex Jocelyn is having with Tedros, according to the show’s logic, unlocks a better understanding of Jocelyn’s own identity.

In what’s been dubbed “the worst sex scene of all time,” Tedros blindfolds Jocelyn and proceeds to bark commands at her — sentences peppered with phrases like “suffocate you with my cock.” This scene is scored with a swooning sax solo, ooo-ooo-ing up and down octaves. Meanwhile, Tedros’s acquaintance and acolyte (it’s hinted that Tedros is running a cult) Chloe (Suzanna Son) secretly watches and fondles herself. According to the closed captioning, “Jocelyn gagging” sounds are also woven in.

Levinson and Tesfaye have been adamant in the press surrounding The Idol that the show is purposely edgy and controversial, and is somehow pushing the boundaries of sex and nudity on TV. There’s even a moment in the first episode that makes an intimacy coordinator the butt of a joke.

In an interview about this specific sex scene, Tesfaye slightly walked that notion back, asserting that the sex scene was supposed to be cringey and purposely bad. It was supposed to cause discomfort, he claimed. Tesfaye’s about-face feels like a pivot in response to the critiques, waving away the failure to thrill as purposeful camp instead of an intentionally kinky sex scene. It feels neither kinky nor campy but rather like it was conceived by someone who’s only ever had awful sex.

The most fascinating parts of the show have nothing to do with sex

Tedros’s bad romance threatens everything Jocelyn has worked for and, by extension, everyone that works for Jocelyn. Jocelyn is, yes, a person, but she represents far more than that. She’s a multimillion-dollar brand that has been carefully created, cultivated, marketed, and strategized to maximize album sales, song streams, and concert revenue. Every move Jocelyn makes is closely watched by her assistant, a creative director, a manager, another manager, a publicist, and a record label executive.

Examining this dynamic, through satire and blistering comedy, is where the show actually gets clever.

At the top of Jocelyn Inc.™ is Nikki Katz (Jane Adams), the monstrously cynical record label executive in charge of Jocelyn’s new album. One moment she’s explaining how mental illness is that little push that makes unattainable women sexier to the sort of people who live in flyover states, and the next, she tells a Vanity Fair reporter (Hari Nef) that mental health is truly so important and that Jocelyn is prioritizing hers like “that Black girl in the Olympics.”

Jane Adams is the best thing about The Idol. It’s a shame the show doesn’t think so.
Eddy Chen/HBO

Nikki’s presence raises a bigger question: What if Jocelyn is just clever marketing? What if the biggest pop star on the planet is only the biggest pop star on the planet because a bunch of ghoulish people in a room decided years ago that her waist-to-hip proportion, the symmetry of her face, and the tone of her voice — though the only voice the audience hears is lip-synced and auto-tuned fit some kind of golden ratio?

With Nikki and the rest of Jocelyn’s entourage, The Idol shrugs off its uber-serious tone for a comedic one. Adams, who just about slithers away with the entire show, delivers Nikki’s cruel lines with a whisper of humor, sliding into absurdity, which ultimately allows the show to really tap into something sinister. She doesn’t care who Jocelyn is, nor does she see her as a person. Jocelyn exists to pay the bills. When Jocelyn no longer sells out arenas, Jocelyn no longer exists.

It’s possible for someone as awful as Nikki to elicit laughs because the reality — that the music industry is actually full of Nikkis ready to run their wards into the ground — is scarier than Tedros and his ChatGPT sexual commands.

Sennott’s performance as Leia also leans into the idea of pop star as farce. Jocelyn is housing Leia in a mansion and paying her to do menial tasks like open the curtains in her room and make her coffee. Despite being Jocelyn’s bestie, she’s just as much an instrument of the management team, always saying yes and always telling Jocelyn she’s great. (Leia’s only input in the first episode is explaining that the taxonomy of bukkake is the presence of multiple men.) Like the rest of them, Leia depends on Jocelyn’s success for her livelihood. If Jocelyn really can’t trust her best friend to be honest with her, there’s really no one she can trust.

The Idol wants to be about the ways a pop star breaks, not to mention the way pretty, perfect pop princesses have always been an illusion. Beneath the scrim of glamour, it’s a world of monsters. That’s not a bad idea, given the way society is re-examining how we treated Britney and Christina, and how we still might be treating the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez.

The problem is that The Idol is deeply infatuated with using serious, kinky, shocking (!) sex as a shorthand for rebellion and its own depth. That, along with Tefaye’s corny performance, becomes its undoing.

Each time The Idol delves into how provocative sex and light cultism unlocks Jocelyn’s artistic side — or, rather, what she thinks artistry is — Levinson’s and Tesfaye’s storytelling gets in its own way, squandering any kind of emotional impact.

The better, scarier version of The Idol is on a parallel track with the one it’s giving us: a bleak comedy about a pop star who might not be that talented, sexy, or artistic but can be engineered to appear to be all of those things. The manager strategizing how to parlay mental illness into album sales is far more sinister than the creep and his creepy sex. It’s a shame that The Idol is so much more interested in the latter.

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