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Can ‘The Idol’ Actually Become a Great Pop Satire?

The controversial new HBO drama showed multiple versions of itself in its pilot, but the most compelling is a cutting industry satire about the dynamics of modern celebrity and pop music

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

The director Sam Levinson and his stars Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, have positioned their new TV drama, The Idol, as a countercultural juggernaut. Levinson, the controversial creator of Euphoria, has faced a great deal of criticism ever since Rolling Stone broke news of the show’s contentious production in March, with some on set describing the series as a loathsome mess of “rape fantasy” and “torture porn.” HBO premiered the series on Sunday, and I’ll say, I wasn’t as irritated as I’d feared, though I’m still not as hooked as I’d hoped. The Idol is a sleazy, irreverent drama about a rebellious pop star, Jocelyn (Depp), and a nightclub owner slash cult leader, Tedros (Tesfaye), in a whirlwind West Hollywood romance. That’s the show on paper. But what is this thing really about?

There’s a handful of promising ideas in the tabloid scandal that opens the series. Jocelyn is a troubled singer whose last tour ended when she had a nervous breakdown shortly after her mother’s death. She’s in the midst of mounting a comeback when someone, presumably a former lover, leaks a selfie of Jocelyn with semen on her face. Unbeknownst to her, the image quickly spreads on social media and gossip blogs, threatening to derail the already-rocky start of her latest tour and the imminent launch of her new single, “World Class Sinner.” Jocelyn’s team—her personal assistant, her publicist, her comanagers, and her record label bosses—hides her phone from her for the rest of the afternoon, ostensibly to spare her some anguish but really to buy themselves some time to work the phones. They pressure bloggers to take down the photos and reframe Jocelyn as a victim of revenge porn; better yet, a feminist martyr. By the time Jocelyn’s team shows her the viral photo, they’re all half-heartedly spouting the adage about all publicity being good publicity. This is a cope, of course; Jocelyn is fucked. She knows she’s fucked. But she, too, plays along with the adage.

I can easily get on board with this version of The Idol, one keeping with the vision of the show’s original director, Amy Seimetz: a music industry satire about the perverse behind-the-scenes dynamics of modern celebrity and pop music. The selfie scandal provides a dire outlook on Jocelyn. Clearly her team is a little too eager to hide things from her, but more conspicuous is the fact that no one in the course of this scandal, not even the personal assistant who is supposedly her “best friend,” ever asks Jocelyn what really happened or how she feels—and once she’s finally given the floor to comment on the situation, even then, Jocelyn doesn’t really say. She’s somehow the least relevant, least opinionated figure in her own sex scandal. Her submission in this moment recalls the opening close-up of the series premiere: a photographer calling out a series of emotions for Jocelyn to perform, in place of her own, with great strain in her face. She’s the very model of the idea that modern pop stars are nothing but vessels for fan fictions and marketing plans.

This series opening with a lengthy striptease and a viral cum shot is, admittedly, a bit much. There’s also a goofy subplot about a performatively woke intimacy coordinator stepping into the photo shoot to enforce the nudity rider in Jocelyn’s contract. He’s trying to protect her, despite Jocelyn being the one to vehemently insist on going fully topless. The record label executive Nikki Katz (Jane Adams) rants about “college-educated internet people” being scandalized by “sex, drugs, and hot girls.” It’s this sort of writing that’s got critics believing that Levinson and Tesfaye have got axes to grind; Michelle Goldberg, writing about The Idol for The New York Times, said, “The show is on the record exec’s side.” This strikes me as an oversimplification of the character dynamics on display. The satire cuts both ways. The intimacy coordinator is certainly the butt of a particular joke (which ends with him locked in a bathroom), but Levinson isn’t exactly positioning Adams and others overseeing Jocelyn’s career as righteous defenders of free expression, heroes of the music industry, and true friends to Jocelyn. They’re vultures feeding on a meal ticket! The shot of Jocelyn’s team towering over her as she languishes on the lawn, like a sitting duck, unaware of her current predicament—I don’t think Levinson is out to valorize these people.

That said, I’m open to the possibility that Levinson has made something other than whatever he thinks he’s made here. In a behind-the-scenes feature, Levinson says the opening close-up in the series premiere “tells you everything you need to know about Jocelyn, how gifted she is as a performer.” I agree with the first part, but I have to laugh at the second: the faces she makes are plainly overwrought, and if anything I came away from those close-ups and the episode overall thinking the point was that she’s dangerously hollow and thus susceptible to misuse. She’s dissatisfied with her own single, but she’s not yet shown to have much in the way of ideas or initiative of her own. She instead comes across as a performer with little taste or passion for song and dance, at least so far as I can tell, but a deep desire to feel special. She’s a pop star of the reality television era. Still, even by the standards of this sort of dirtbag pop, Jocelyn sounds a bit too detached on “World Class Sinner,” and Tedros, unlike so many yes-men on her payroll, cuts to the heart of the matter and tells her, “You should at least sing it like you know how to fuck.” This brings the two of them to the height of erotic asphyxiation, and so the premiere ends on a thematically apt but still weirdly airless drop of “Darling Nikki.”

Several months ago, in an interview with, well, himself, Donald Glover said, “I do think it’s time for Zendaya to choose up and leave Sam to come to Death Row.” He was of course talking about Euphoria, but now this quote has got me comparing Atlanta and The Idol as music industry satires, the former concerned with hip-hop, the latter concerned with pop. Very different milieus, of course, with very different protagonists. Paper Boi was a working-class rapper playing bar mitzvahs and living in humble digs with a roommate well into his 30s; Jocelyn is a flickering star who’s at least earned some trappings of massive success—a power circle of sycophants, a $70 million mansion in Bel Air—but she’s clearly struggling to define herself and make the final leap from pop novelty to pop royalty. But otherwise Glover and Levinson have more in common than one of them would like to admit. They’re both eagerly argumentative and at times overly determined to neutralize their critics. But Glover has a firm and masterful grip on his projects, while Levinson often shows a much shakier hand. I liked Malcolm & Marie more than most critics, but I can see how that movie’s detractors might find The Idol similarly exasperating, as Levinson has only doubled down on some of the movie’s overindulgences in The Idol.

But then there’s another version of The Idol lurking in the series premiere: a smutty romantic thriller heavy on music video vibes but light on purpose, anchored by Tedros. He doesn’t show up until nearly a half hour into the series premiere, and his introduction marks a distinct and somewhat disappointing vibe shift for the episode: from snappy culture-war banter by the pool to dead-serious foreplay in red rooms. You quickly remember that The Idol started as a pitch from Tesfaye, and this means we’re inevitably going to be subjected to the relentless sad-sack kink-chic of his mixtape days. So far, it’s hard to know what to make of the dramatic potential of Tedros or the acting skills of Tesfaye. Tesfaye calls Tedros “a dark, complicated, scary, pathetic human,” and he plays him as an offbeat hypebeast dom whose self-confidence runs only an inch deep. The most gratifying bit of the premiere is Jocelyn plainly saying what we’re all nervously thinking about Tedros for those first few minutes, “You have a rattail,” and his reaction to this flirtatious quip is one of genuine hurt. The romance of Jocelyn and Tedros, in this early phase, isn’t quite intriguing, just overwhelming. Before she even meets Tedros, Jocelyn is already a host to so many parasites.

This show could go so many different ways. Are we going to have a little subversive fun or are we going to be miserable on purpose? Is this thing Entourage or Blonde? Let’s see.