‘The Idol’: As Bad As The Critics Say It Is?


Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye in “The Idol” (Courtesy of Max)

By Graham Jones, Assistant Arts Editor


There’s a meme I’ve seen tossed around a few times in reaction to the new HBO series “The Idol.” It’s a frame from a 1980s comedy show named “Police Squad!” that reads “Tonight’s episode: The Writer’s Barely-Disguised Fetish.” The writer of this new television series is none other than Sam Levinson, the acclaimed yet controversial creator of the hit show “Euphoria.” Levinson has never had a completely clean slate but with “The Idol” he’s found himself in especially deep water.

Trouble From The Start

The show was announced in June of 2021 as a drama placed in the modern music industry following a young woman’s rise to fame. The show was set to be directed entirely by Amy Seimetz, an actress and writer of shows like “The Girlfriend Experience.” This changed in April of 2022 when she left the show due to large creative changes in the direction and story of the show. Crew and cast followed in Seimetz’s footsteps including actress Suzanna Son who starred in the A24 film “Red Rocket.” Though these abrupt changes were initially unexplained, slowly news outlets began to report they were the result of complaints from the co-star and co-creator of the show, Abel Tesfaye.

Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, is well known for putting out multiple billboard-topping songs. Besides “The Idol” his only other acting experience he has is a small role in the 2018 film “Uncut Gems.”  Sources claimed Tesfaye believed the show was “leaning too much into the female perspective” and was taking away from his character. After the show was delayed, Levinson took creative control.

Controversy ramped up in March of 2023 when “Rolling Stone” released an expose covering the troubled shooting of the show. This troubled shooting included constrained filming periods, constant rewrites and absent showrunners. The most disturbing section of the expose covered scenes Levinson had added to the show, many featuring “sexual torture porn” between the two main leads. One interviewee claimed that under Levinson’s new direction, the show had become, “like any rape fantasy that any toxic man would have.”

Tesfaye, Levinson, and Lily-Rose Depp, the actress portraying the rising pop star, all responded to the article saying the claims made were complete fiction. Depp said she felt “supported” and “respected” on set while Tesfaye reacted to the piece with a tweet reading “Rolling Stone did we upset you?”

Levinson’s response came during the show’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I just said, “I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.” At that same festival, the show would debut with almost entirely poor reviews. With its initial rotten tomatoes score sitting at 17%. Since then, it has risen to 24%, which still makes it one of the worst critically received HBO shows.

How Bad Is It?

After giving the first two episodes a watch, I found myself sad and uncomfortable. The show is often well-shot and uses its film format to create a gritty aesthetic. However, I do feel that grainy look is being overused in recent music videos, which this show is trying to resemble.

Lily-Rose Depp in “The Idol” (Courtesy of Max)

Lily-Rose Depp’s acting stands out and is pretty amazing when it’s in connection to the storyline’s most interesting aspect—the pop star’s attempt to move past the trauma of her mother’s death. When the show focused on that very human pain, it was compelling. Unfortunately, that is where my compliments end as the rest of what is on-screen ranges from boring to awkward to offensive. 

I personally was never able to get into “Euphoria” because I have a difficult time watching media centered entirely around Gen Z culture.  “The Idol” lives in that same environment, only without the thoughtful or witty commentary “Euphoria” seems to have. Most of the characters are painfully unlikeable and the dialogue written for them often feels hollow or more fitting in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Attempts to comment on the modern music industry sound like tweets from the dumbest minds on the internet. For a show that seemingly wants to criticize the over-sexualization of women in music, the camera often unnecessarily lingers on Depp’s nudity. I think there are plenty of instances throughout film and television where explicit nudity is used to benefit the story, but here it just comes off as overwhelming.

The worst thing is the storyline with Tesfaye’s character and his apparent lack of acting skills. Levinson writes Tesfaye’s character as a mysterious man who Depp’s character is immediately enthralled with. Depp’s protagonist loses all her layers in the scenes with Tesfaye, becoming an object for him to play strange, disturbing sex games with. These scenes are written without thought and are presented like soft-core porn, Tesfaye giving a laughably terrible performance with each line read worse than the last. 

“The Idol” is awful in most aspects and I feel terrible that I gave it my eyes to write this article. There are a lot of talented people involved in the show but the two main creators have shown to be arrogant, icky human beings. In my opinion “The Idol” isn’t worth anyone’s time or thought.


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