A look back at HBO’s most controversial series
Ever since its debut on Max on June 4 – nay, ever since its very premiere on May 22, HBO’s The Idol starring Lily-Rose Depp and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye has sparked nothing but online outrage from critics and audiences alike, with people calling it the worst television product of 2023 and one of HBO’s worst series of all time. The story follows Jocelyn (Depp), a music star who decides to get back onto the scene after taking a year-long break. Upon meeting Tedros (Tesfaye), a shady producer/manager who immediately sets his eyes on her, Jocelyn falls into a downward spiral of toxicity that pushes her to the limit.
For the past two years word on the street was that The Idol’s entire production story had been nothing short of a nightmare, and rumors unfortunately didn’t stop there, as a big chunk of the show’s controversies goes well beyond its behind-the-scenes scandals. What exactly happened, though? How did that have an impact on the show’s actual quality? This analysis will dive deep into the surreal, disturbing mess of a show that is HBO’s The Idol.
An interesting premise ruined by poorly written characters
One might not conduct a clear analysis of this show without answering a blunt question first – is it any good? The answer is as brutal as it is simple, and that would be a strict, uncompromising “no”. Following its polarizing Cannes debut, people took their discomfort on Twitter with comments ranging from “garbage” to “I hated it”, and noting how creator Sam Levinson’s writing failed to bring the necessary nuances that harsh topics like sexual and psychological violence needed. Such themes require a level of wit and delicacy that he instead sacrificed in favor of gratuitous perversity.
Lily-Rose Depp does her best in bringing Jocelyn’s fragility to life and brings a genuine performance (probably the only one) to the table. Unfortunately, she’s ultimately suffocated by the messy creative direction and its focus on Tedros, who is an ironically perfect representation of every issue the show has. It’s painfully evident how Levinson and Tesfaye (who’s also credited as a writer) aimed at creating a character both mysterious and charismatic, threatening and charming – but failed spectacularly at all of the above. Tesfaye’s performance is amateur-ish (to the point his cringe-worthy “let me catch you looking at her again” line from Episode 3 quickly became a meme), and the character is so shallow that even his depravity comes off as flat and shocking-for-shock’s-sake. And the worst thing is that the showrunners constantly treat him as some kind of fascinating anti-hero rather than a full-on villain. To her friend’s remark that “he’s so rapey”, Depp’s character replies with “that’s kind of what I like about him”. This is not the message you want to send in a TV show, and was a huge turnoff for millions of people.
Production troubles and behind-the-scenes drama
The Idol has had such a troublesome production that it’s surprising it even saw the light in the first place. Not even a year after being announced in June 2021, the show made the news with some major changes reportedly being made, and the first allegations of toxicity on set and misogynistic rewrites surfaced soon after. Specifically, on April 25 it was announced that director Amy Seimetz, who was slated to direct all episodes, had exited the project along with some other crew members. The reason is simple – The Weeknd, who served as a co-creator of the show, felt that it was leaning too much into a “female perspective” rather than giving the spotlight to his own character. The news sparked a huge online controversy the minute it came out.
As a consequence of all that, Sam Levinson was called to fill in and finish the job. This resulted in massive delays due to Levinson scrapping the nearly finished project (that came to a whopping cost of $54-75 million) to rewrite and reshoot the entire thing, giving his own personal footprint to the series and align it with The Weeknd’s vision – or maybe “vanity project” would be more fitting. After Rolling Stone conducted an investigation on the alleged toxic environment (and later slammed the show with a brutal review describing it as “nasty, brutish, […] and way, way worse than you’d have anticipated”), the Blinding Lights’ singer uploaded a clip of The Idol on Twitter, tagging the magazine with a provocative response. On the other hand, both Lily-Rose Depp and Sam Levinson were more discreet, distancing themselves from the allegations and instead spending words of praise for the series.
Questionable objectives and problematic depictions
All the aspects analyzed so far paint the picture of a poorly produced, written, and acted project with a conspicuous history of tabloid-level gossip. The Idol isn’t just that – but what is it that makes it a show that not only completely misses its point, but ends up glorifying the very thing it’s supposed to satirize? The Idol serves as a (wannabe) harsh satire of the perversity of the music industry. The problem is that it’s so focused on appearing transgressive that it sacrifices all the quality aspects that make a television show truly standout. Instead, it either opts for a quite frankly disgusting depravity, like the now-infamous recording studio sex scene between Jocelyn and Tedros, or it gratuitously takes shots at woke culture and feminism without actually going anywhere.
A comparison could be drawn with Euphoria, the Levinson-created show that launched the director into stardom – that show too had tons of sexually explicit scenes and tacked-on violence. The thing is that despite the over-the-top themes, Euphoria had a lot of genuinely compelling human drama, and those themes were functional to the cinematic catharsis in the foreground. Instead, The Idol is legitimately hypocritical in that. It’s supposed to be a grim parody of the narcissistic and manipulative dynamics of the music industry… but doesn’t realize it’s really a parody of itself, as The Weeknd’s diva behavior goes on to prove (which is even more disturbing when considering his attachment to the character). The Idol tries so hard to be edgy and provocative, but its constant pushing the envelope only shows how empty its ethics really are, to the point that even some former crew members described it as a misogynistic “rape fantasy” and “torture porn”.
Taking all of this into consideration, it’s still hard to tell whether The Idol was a success or not. While the premiere drew a little more than 900,000 viewers (which is an average-to-good number for HBO), a television series is usually able to attract more audiences the more the plot unfolds. In this case, there was hardly anything to explore, and viewership consistently decreased over the course of the airing. One gets the impression that a major part of the huge press attention came from all the drama surrounding the project and the generally negative reception of it online. Either way, this should serve as a wake-up call for HBO – gossip is temporary, but quality is durable.
Of course, you can judge for yourself, as The Idol is currently streaming on Max!
|Federico was born on July 20, 1998, in Trieste, Italy. Film enthusiast for as long as he can remember, he graduated in Philosophy at the University of Turin. His lifelong dream is to become a storyteller, and he’s currently planning his next step to (hopefully!) make this dream come true.|