To write about “The Idol” at all is to fall into a bit of a trap, because the show desperately wants to be a scandal. In March, Rolling Stone reported that “The Idol,” originally intended as a satire of the music business, had devolved into what one source called “sexual torture porn” after the sudden exit of its female director, Amy Seimetz. According to Deadline, Seimetz had been forced out because the show’s co-creator and co-star, Abel Tesfaye, better known as the pop star the Weeknd, wanted to see less of a “female perspective.” (Tesfaye has denied this.)
Sam Levinson, who created the show with Tesfaye and ended up directing it, pronounced himself delighted by the Rolling Stone report. “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,’” he said at Cannes. HBO also leaned into the controversy, marketing “The Idol” as the “sleaziest love story” in Hollywood.
There is, indeed, a lot of sleaze, but the show seems meant to stimulate discourse as much as libido. Lily-Rose Depp plays Jocelyn, a fragile sexpot singer who, it is hinted, had some sort of breakdown following the death of her mother. As the first episode begins, she’s posing for a photo shoot, nearly naked and on her knees, with a hospital bracelet on her wrist. When a youngish creative director expresses qualms about “romanticizing mental illness,” an abrasive Gen X record executive, played by Jane Adams, chides out-of-touch “college-educated internet people” who won’t let the public “enjoy sex, drugs and hot girls.”
The show is on the record exec’s side. Soon a dweeby, performatively progressive intimacy coordinator who tries to stop Jocelyn from revealing her breasts during the photo shoot has been locked in a bathroom. Later, when Jocelyn’s assistant describes Tedros, the unctuous club owner played by Tesfaye, as “so rapey,” Jocelyn replies, “Yeah, I kind of like that about him.” The episode ends with Tedros awakening her creativity by erotically asphyxiating her with her own robe.
I suppose this is meant to be shocking, but what was really striking about the debut episode is its dull nostalgia. Jocelyn, after all, doesn’t really resemble any current female pop stars. The most successful singer in America right now is Swift, whose career has taken her from wistful ingénue to world-weary feminist, and who is both a pop genius and an extremely savvy businesswoman. Megan Thee Stallion may lead with her sexuality, but she’s no submissive broken bird. The stars who’ve been open about their mental health challenges, including Selena Gomez and SZA, certainly don’t sexualize those struggles.