‘The Idol’ Is Ending Sunday. Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing.
Three Times critics agree: The HBO pop fable is bad television. Ahead of Sunday night’s season finale, they break down its baffling missteps and occasional bright spots.
By James Poniewozik, Wesley Morris and Lindsay Zoladz
Created by Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. the Weeknd), “The Idol” arrived five weeks ago amid mostly negative buzz and ends Sunday on HBO. (A second season has not been announced.) Ahead of the season finale, three New York Times critics — James Poniewozik, chief TV critic; Wesley Morris, critic at large; and Lindsay Zoladz, pop music critic — compared notes on the story of the unstable pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), the grimy Svengali Tedros (Tesfaye) and their various handlers and hangers-on.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK A confession: I was ready for “The Idol” to be good. Yeah, I saw the reports about the catastrophic production. But there’s a history of HBO series that followed big hits and were trashed because they were trying different, ambitious things. (I will defend “Tell Me You Love Me” and “John From Cincinnati” until death.)
But indeed “The Idol” is bad. Impressively so! In this era of smoothed-out TV mediocrity, you need pull to make a show this bad. You need big names who have, to quote Tedros, “cart-ay blan-shay.” “The Idol” is gross and leering in the way the set reports suggested, but it’s also inept in a way that Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria” would not suggest. The tone lurches erratically. Motivations are inexplicable. It features the least mesmerizing cult leader in screen history. Characters and story lines seem to exist only to express the makers’ gripes about the music industry or intimacy coordinators, like a porny, torture-y “The Newsroom.”
I am open to arguments to the contrary, though! Or, at least, is “The Idol” saying anything about celebrity or pop music that’s worth a closer listen?
WESLEY MORRIS I’m with you, Jim. Through four episodes, it’s a baffler. I think it suffers from that pull you identified. This is a 90-minute movie that doesn’t have the bonkers ideas, imagery or attitude to justify the five-plus hours it asks us to pay.
But you know, that first episode seemed like it was really up to and onto something. As TV, it ran tight and focused while being busy and, in its lewd way, suspenseful. It was funny, strange, knowingly acted and — as ensemble comedy and because of that erotic choreography — enticingly physical. We’re taken inside the hothouse of American celebrity to watch as it wilts beneath the California sun. We meet an army of competing personalities and competing interests, all trying to figure out what then seemed to be a question of murder-mystery proportions: How did that image of Jocelyn’s semen-stained face get all over the internet? And who is its owner? Turns out, the leak is a white herring.
An important joke is that the horror filmmaker Eli Roth is here, jittering in a small, pretty decent part. That’s because everything after the first episode, which ends with Tedros Tedros (yes, “Lolita” lovers) turning Jocelyn into a Magritte painting (tying her head up in a scarlet scarf) and then telling her to sing, is indeed a soulless trip to Ye Olde Torture-Porn Dungeon, albeit a bank-bustingly chic one.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ Hello, fellow world-class sinners. Jim, I agree that there is something rare about a show this chaotically messy in our age of middle-of-the-road prestige, but I’m not sure that it’s compellingly bad enough that I would recommend it to anyone for rubbernecking purposes. Life’s too short. As attempted commentary about pop stardom, I find the show to be repellently smug — it really thinks it has something profound to say about celebrity and even (help us) female empowerment, but its big ideas all ring disappointingly hollow.
And dramaturgically speaking — to quote Jeremy Strong, an actor I’d rather be watching on Sunday nights — “The Idol” is curiously inert. The story is muddled, the pacing is all over the place, the writing and performances can’t get me to care about the fates of any of the major characters. The best thing about the show by far is its stellar supporting cast: Rachel Sennott is hilarious as Leia, a kind of skittishly basic, Gen-Z Marnie Michaels who finds herself plopped down uncomfortably in the middle of this den of sin. But my favorite member of the entourage is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who brings a knowingness and a killer sense of comic timing to the role of Destiny, one of Jocelyn’s managers. Cast her in everything, please.
The flip-side of the supporting actors’ strengths, though, is also one of the show’s main weaknesses: “The Idol” is at its worst when its main characters are onscreen. Which, of course, is most of the time.
The question I keep asking myself: Why is the Weeknd doing this? (Excuse me: Why is Abel Tesfaye doing this?) Over the past decade, the Toronto-born crooner has ascended to a level of pop stardom more stratospheric than even the fictional Jocelyn’s; “Blinding Lights,” his glisteningly paranoid 2019 single, is now the longest charting song by a solo artist ever on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the most-streamed song in Spotify history. That makes him successful in a way that even a misguided passion project like “The Idol” is unlikely to put too large a dent in, though I can’t help but wonder if this tarnishes his reputation just a bit moving forward. Jim, as someone less familiar with the Weeknd’s music, what impression is Tesfaye’s performance here making on you?
PONIEWOZIK To my eye (and ear), Tesfaye is reading the role rather than acting it. His performance is flat, except when he overcorrects into outbursts. It’s the actorly equivalent of wearing sunglasses indoors; it doesn’t look cool, it just keeps us from seeing your eyes. And his “I meant to do that” defenses in his interviews don’t help matters. Why is he doing this? Search me, but maybe the answer is in the credits: Maybe he feels that there is an “Abel Tesfaye” side to his talent that “the Weeknd” persona does not sufficiently express. But if he’s willing to stretch in a new direction, he’s not yet Abel.
In general, to bring up another bad HBO memory, “The Idol” has what I think of as the “Entourage” problem. For most of that show’s run, I could never quite tell if I was meant to think Vinny Chase was talented or just a pretty face who believed his own P.R. That issue is everywhere here. Is Jocelyn’s single … good? Is the remix? Is Tedros smart? Musically savvy? Charismatic? Good at sex? I don’t know, and if “The Idol” does, it also seems willing to reverse things on a dime to make the story go where it needs to, as when Jocelyn swerves within the space of an episode from being totally in Tedros’s thrall to calling him out and calling the shots. I would love to know what either of you think we’re supposed to think about Jocelyn.
MORRIS Let’s talk about it! First of all, that song … It’s what plays while you make returns at Uniqlo. There’s not much that Mike Dean, the producer who makes an embarrassingly gonzo appearance in Episode 4, could do to make it more interesting. It’s a banger that doesn’t bang.
My favorite farcical detail in this show is that a major pop star exists whose stage name is Jocelyn. “Jocelyn” is how you can tell nobody knew how to stop this thing before it was too late. This isn’t something I’d be thinking much about with a show that worked (I love all the Jocelyns in my life!), if that show’s lead actor could do more than leak a river from one eye at a time. But Lily-Rose Depp is a single-tear sort of performer. And yet! She does appear to be acting something like pain and insecurity. Somehow, she’s convincing me that Jocelyn is more than Sam Levinson’s idea of pop star. Depp is better at line readings than the Weeknd. She knows how to hold a closeup.
But the part itself is madness: a clash of motivations, lusts, self-doubt and ambitions. It’s cri-de-coeur Britney mixed with Elvis under Col. Tom Parker’s thumb. But the prevailing influence, to my eye anyway, is Depp’s own mother, the singer, actor and Frenchwoman Vanessa Paradis. Jocelyn’s skinny, mile-long cigarettes seem more like a tribute to that kind of European insouciance than to anything conventionally American.
Anyway, Jocelyn has been written as a mess, this victim (her abusers include her recently deceased mom and the maw of showbiz) whose post-traumatic stress has led her, we’re asked to believe, to a Svengali’s cult whose M.O. is basically “let Tedros Tedros make you suffer for your art.” But is she any kind of artist? The most irritating part of the show is maybe its point: Much stronger, more original talent surrounds Jocelyn, but her white blondness overtakes any determination to coax it.
The show is chronically offering much better stuff than Jocelyn’s potential hit “World Class Sinner.” In the first episode it is prolonged exposure to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”; in Episode 4 it’s the singing and songwriting of another of Tedros’s captives, a strawberry shortcake named Chloe (Suzanna Son) — in the show’s only feat of poignant emotional connection, she learns from Destiny how to use her tongue to produce stronger (perhaps Blacker) singing. But Destiny is supposed to be Jocelyn’s manager! Has she ever advised her client to do that?
Lindsay, I like Destiny, too. Sometimes. But she spends a week watching an adult man do terrible stuff to all kinds of people, including her client, and says nothing of consequence. This isn’t management. It’s babysitting.
ZOLADZ Jim, I am constantly coming back to the questions you asked: Are we supposed to think Jocelyn’s music is any good? And, more vexingly, are we supposed to think the music she’s making with Tedros is better than the music the label wants her to record? (Remember a few years ago when we were all arguing over whether or not the pop songs in “A Star Is Born” were supposed to be bad? “The Idol” has me desperately missing Ally and her alternate-universe banger “Hair Body Face.” Jocelyn could never.)
I do think we’re supposed to find “World Class Sinner” to be cloying and superficial, but the music she’s making with Tedros is bad, too. Some of this is Depp’s performance: She’s a watchable screen presence, but she’s a weak vocalist, and it’s often hard to tell if the vacancy she projects when she’s singing these songs is written into the character or merely a limitation of her performance. Whether intentional or not, she’s certainly playing Jocelyn like a cipher, which can make for confusing and frustrating viewing.
What most gets on my nerves about the show’s philosophy about pop music, though, is that on some level it does feel like a self-aggrandizing commercial for the Weeknd. When Tedros wants to impress Jocelyn with his industry connections, he books a session with — cue the impressed gasps from basically everyone in Joc’s entourage — Mike Dean, a producer with whom the Weeknd often works.
I mean, the show takes place in Tesfaye’s own Beverly Hills mansion and features innumerable characters telling Joc how dope her house is. Tesfaye has taken great pains to point out that Tedros is not a self-portrait, and of course it’s not: For one thing, Tedros isn’t a musician. But no amount of gauche rattail wigs and zipped-up wind-breakers can make this show the artistic risk or the expression of vulnerability that Tesfaye seems to think it is. The Weeknd’s songs tint the show’s atmosphere — Episode 4 centered, right on the nose, on his too-languid cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” — ultimately perfuming the show with an ever-present whiff of self-satisfaction.
PONIEWOZIK So what is this show trying to say, from behind its red-fabric gag? It seems to buy big into the idea that authenticity in art comes from suffering. And it’s full of provocations about how carnality is the soul of music. These two concepts come together in the show’s S&M fixation: Rough sex, in its vision (or at least Tedros’s), is the hairbrush for the frozen sea within us. On top of that, there’s a lot of something-something about how the corporate music money machine wants to repress the artist’s wildest urges.
It’s hard to see these themes play out in “The Idol” without thinking of the criticisms of how Levinson sexualizes his young female characters in “Euphoria.” Most of the first episode is about Jocelyn’s handlers trying to rein in her sexuality and using the language of “wellness” and “slut-shaming” and “revenge porn” as P.R. tools. It all feels like a straw-diva rebuttal: “You call it exploitation, but look, this fictional woman I created wants to show her nipples on camera! Woke capitalism won’t let her express herself!”
The stressed-out suits, however, are easily the best part of the show. Half of it is a caustic, “Veep”-style industry satire about the star-maker machinery, with strong work from Randolph, Hank Azaria and Jane Adams (the best part of “Hung,” that raunchy HBO train wreck of yesteryear). Say you gave the show a Jocelyn-ectomy; say she and Tedros and the entire Spahn Mansion high jinks were this offscreen problem that they had to talk about and manage (but also try to profit from). That could be brutally effective. But then what would the Weeknd do?
MORRIS I love the idea of a starless “Idol.” It’s funny: There is no shortage of recent television about either famous artists or our obsession with them — “Dave,” Paper Boi in “Atlanta,” “Daisy Jones & the Six,” “The Swarm” — and not many of them are terribly enlightening about how fame feels. Mass culture enhanced and exacerbated its modern incarnation yet continues to be lousy at illuminating critiques of it.
Not even the Weeknd really seems to have an answer for what celebrity is, what makes someone a star. (So many times in this show we hear someone say that so-and-so is a star, but it’s definitely not Jocelyn.) The one character who approximates the requirements is Tedros — in the world of the show, the outsize magnetism belongs to him. Of course, that fame is artificial; his worshipers are more afraid than admiring. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover his heroes are Ike Turner and Ron O’Neal’s Youngblood Priest in “Super Fly.” At some point, Tedros looks at up, searchingly, at an almost life-size photo of Prince, a star who is known to have had his own moments of Tedrosity.
The show is strange about Black men and sex. And no one in the show talks about it. A funny intergenerational fender-bender happens when Azaria’s Chaim implores Leia to describe Tedros and she keeps identifying him as a person of color, and Chaim keeps asking whether she’s trying to say he’s Black. The whole show is like that about Tedros and Moses Sumney’s Izaak, its two Black male characters: tentative. It doesn’t know what more to do with a scenario that’s freighted with this country’s long history of racialized sex than to be a troll about it.
I’m with you two: For all the sex and vulgarity we see and hear about, the show has no idea how to convey what’s pleasurable about it, about what we come to certain pop music to experience.
I know we don’t know where this going, how it’s going to end. I don’t know whether anyone should care, or even what would be a satisfying outcome for Tedros in Sunday’s finale. All I know is that when Destiny proposed murder, I clapped.
James Poniewozik is The Times’s chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He is also the author of “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America.”
Wesley Morris is a critic at large and the co-host, with Jenna Wortham, of the culture podcast “Still Processing.” He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for criticism, including in 2021 for a set of essays that explored the intersection of race and pop culture. @wesley_morris
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