Film, TV + Theatre

Is HBO’s ‘The Idol’ really that bad and disturbing of a show?

Sick and twisted


By Marissa Chin

Is HBO’s ‘The Idol’ really that bad and disturbing of a show?

The debut of HBO’s racy new series The Idol hasn’t been pretty. The show was embroiled in controversy after Variety reported in March that the script went through a drastic overhaul, turning it from a piece on female empowerment to “twisted torture porn” (you can catch up on the scandal here). Viewers were concerned over the graphic nature of the show as Sam Levinson, creator of Euphoria and fervent fan of female nudity, would direct the series alongside The Weeknd AKA Abel Tesfaye—also known for his raunchy objectification of women in his music. Coupled with the fact that it stars Blackpink’s Jennie Kim in her first acting gig and love-or-hate-her nepo baby Lily-Rose Depp, there was plenty for internet vultures to descend upon when The Idol premiered on 4 June. And descend, they did.

The show currently has an abysmal score on Rotten Tomatoes of 26 per cent and 4.8/10 on IMDb. While most netizens bring up the disturbing sex scenes and questionable acting, I was determined to watch the show for myself to gather my own thoughts. As it were, the premise of the show still intrigued me. Audiences follow Jocelyn, a singer who dreams of being America’s greatest pop star, and her complicated relationship with self-help guru (*cough* cult leader *cough*) Tedros. There aren’t many shows delving into the seedy side of Hollywood and I was interested to see how The Idol would tackle the dark underbelly of the music industry behind all its glitz and glamour. After catching up with both episodes, I definitely see some glaring flaws…but also some redeeming qualities, believe it or not.

Is The Idol really that horrible of a show? I go over the main criticisms of the series and give my thoughts below.

Warning: spoilers ahead for Episode One and Two!


The Idol is soft porn packaged into a well-shot TV show

Probably the most damaging and disturbing part of The Idol is how sexualised everything is. I mentally prepared myself for this show but I was still shocked at how explicit it was. Really, I should’ve known better since Levinson is the type of director who is adamant about making women go nude on screen or wear the skimpiest clothes for whatever reason. In episode two, there was a character who doesn’t speak a single word yet we’re given a full view of her naked body as she plays on the piano. There are also multiple scenes of Jocelyn pleasuring herself, choking herself and saying she likes the fact that Tedros is “rape-y” (“and for what?” is a question I often ask myself throughout the show). 

A lot of the scenes are extremely male gaze-y, and it literally is because the show is directed and created by two men about a poor young woman trying to climb up the pop music ladder. For a show that’s trying to tackle the exploitation and objectification of women in the music industry, it sure feels like it’s doing the same exact thing to its female stars. It doesn’t sit well with me knowing that Tesfaye himself wrote these graphic sex scenes into the show for his own character to play in. The 10-minute sex scene at the end of episode two was one of the hardest scenes I’ve had to sit through in recent memory. We have Tedros saying things such as “feel my fat tongue” and “suffocate on my c*ck” while he watches Jocelyn pleasure herself as she’s being asphyxiated by a scarf.

The entire scene felt so voyeuristic and disturbing that I had to ask myself who this show was actually for. Is it for young women to feel empowered? Or does it purely pander to male audiences and their sexual fantasies? Perhaps, this is how it’s meant to be. After all, it is a widely known fact that women are commodified in the music industry so it’s meant to feel icky, gross and uncomfortable. However, to me, the sex scenes come across as entirely self-gratuitous and almost an abuse of power if I think about it for too long. The Idol is brought down by its unnecessarily excessive sexual content, which is unfortunate because it has other aspects going for them.


Jocelyn is a great main character

Say what you want about Depp being a privileged nepotism baby but she can act. In fact, Depp’s performance is hard carrying the entire show on her back. While the first episode didn’t do much other than being an over-glorified music video, the second episode really changed my perspective of her for the better. I found myself rooting hard for Jocelyn and this is largely due to Depp’s ability to impart a great deal of empathy, vulnerability and authenticity behind her sexed-up persona.

Not going to lie, I actually teared up during a scene where the pressure gets too much for Joycelyn and she calls out for her mum who passed away. At that moment, all you see is a scared and insecure young girl who had to grow up too soon and had little time to mourn her loss. As someone who has personally lost a parent, the way the show portrayed grief in this scene felt all too real and raw. 


The Idol is good when you just focus on the idol in question

The show definitely has great moments and a lot of it has to do with Jocelyn. I found myself more engrossed in Jocelyn’s story and would have loved The Idol to focus on her personal journey than her twisted love story with Tedros. Those moments establish her as a complex and multi-dimensional character. When we follow her, specifically, The Idol is actually quite poignant and emotional. It’s only when Tedros appears that the show takes a sleazy and depraved turn, almost as if I’m watching two different shows in one. I’ve also seen criticism on how easy it was for Jocelyn to fall for Tedros, but a lot of it makes sense in the context of her character. After all, she’s dealing with the loss of her mother, her music career is tanking, and she abuses alcohol to escape her thoughts.

Yes, she’s going to make foolish and bad decisions because she’s literally mentally unwell and pushed to her limits. All of this makes her a prime target for the predator Rat King (yes, I’m calling him that because that rat tail on him is unforgivable) to prey on her. Jocelyn is a young star looking for validation and stability in an industry full of backstabbers and provocateurs. Personally, this premise alone is compelling enough without the need for Tedros’ character, which is why I find their relationship a slog.


Everyone else is yet to make a real impression

There’s no beating around the bush or sugar-coating it: Tesfaye cannot act. Perhaps I’ve expected too much from his cameo in Uncut Gems but the singer unfortunately suffers from One Expression Syndrome. Whether it’s electrocuting his cult member with a shock collar, telling Jocelyn he’s going to “devour her” or playing the charismatic club boss, Tesfaye doesn’t show any real emotion and his robotic line delivery is justifiably meme-worthy. How am I supposed to believe that Joycelyn, who doesn’t think it’s all that bad that people call her a “human c*m sock”, is having mind-blowing sex with a man that counts dirty talk as, *flips through notes*, “let me see them titties”?


Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say Jennie as Dyanne completely hit the mark either. It’s clear that she still needs more time to be comfortable acting in front of a camera. Her back-stabbing character is much more than I anticipated for her, though, and I’m glad to see that Dyanne will have a bigger role down the line rather than just being mere eye candy.

Troye Sivan is unfortunately severely underutilised and I don’t find myself particularly caring about any of Jocelyn’s entourage as of yet. Maybe it’s because they try too hard with their pretentious woke progressivism and say things such as “mental illness is sexy”…just maybe…


The cinematography is top-notch

I will give Levinson credit where it’s due and say that The Idol is shot beautifully. Apart from the slow-motion gyrating and overly excessive smoking scenes (seriously, I stopped counting after the 10th shot of Depp sexily lighting up a cigarette), the show delivers great visuals. The opening close-up of Jocelyn in the pilot episode is memorable, as well as shots of her in frames that establish her isolation and also reflect how we, as the audience, are voyeurs peeking into Joycelyn’s private life.

However, I do find pacing and editing to be an issue in the show. There’s a scene in episode two when Jocelyn is filming her music video and it cuts back and forth with her managers talking about Tedros’ shady background. The whole scene was hard to follow and it’s unclear why Chaim even brings up the cuts on her legs if it’s not going to be mentioned again. Further, Nikki mentions how Dyanne is outdancing everyone and yet, she’s not seen anywhere despite the first episode establishing that she is positioned right next to Joycelyn. 


Overall, the criticism of The Idol’s graphic sex scenes and the vulgar script is justified. It gives me a nauseating amount of discomfort and makes my toes curl in cringe and secondhand embarrassment. I can’t stand Tedros and his predatory behaviour. The man is a walking ick and if that was Tesfaye’s goal all along, then maybe he did a far better job than I gave him credit for. In saying that, while The Idol is far from being a perfect show, it does have its shining moments on stage. Only time will tell if the show will be more than just a viral hit. 

The Idol is available to stream on HBO Go and on HBO Astro Channel 411 every Monday. 


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