The first adjective used to describe Tedros—the darkly enigmatic character played by Abel Tesfaye in the show he has co-created—is “rape-y”. The Idol (JioCinema) is about a spiralling superstar but Tesfaye (better known as pop phenomenon The Weeknd) isn’t playing the star. Instead, Tedros directs ingenues into making their pelvic thrusts raunchier, saying, “They’re the audience, make them believe you’re going to fuck them.” He then electrocutes a dancer, who later says, reverentially, of him: “He’s very godly.” There could have been a mythological level of conflict in this series about a preying cultmaster, but The Idol seems to care more about a young victim’s curves.
Co-created and directed by Sam Levinson—who made the initially striking but eventually too sexploitative Euphoria (JioCinema)—The Idol is decidedly far from godly and the gaze feels disgustingly intrusive. The camera appears to lech at every exposed curve and the aesthetic is that of a 1980s B-movie, all red-lights and a let’s-get-it-on background score. The show is unsubtle about intent: In the first episode, an intimacy coordinator is locked in a bathroom during a photoshoot and one character laments the need to “cock-block America”. This is an all-out assault on the senses, a nearly pornographic attempt at sensationalism.
The object of their leering is Jocelyn, played by Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp. It is a demanding but poorly written part, and while the performer may occasionally appear compelling, we will have to gauge her talent later with better work. Here, I feel ashamed to say, I would theorise Levinson and Tesfaye have cast the 24-year-old for her age and her inherent “nymphet-ness”, and how shocking it would be, therefore, to defile such a character. There is nothing wrong with an actor showing skin —the first scene of the show is about that agency—but it’s sickening to watch the male gaze drink her in.
This is a shame because Depp is really giving it her all: The show’s cruel demands include Jocelyn masturbating with a glassful of ice or begging to be choked, or messing up a music-video shoot and crying balefully for her dead mother. She’s trying her best, as are other talented actors, including Jane Adams (playing a jaded record-label executive), Hank Azaria (playing Jocelyn’s manager) and—best of the lot—Rachel Sennott (of Shiva Baby) playing Leia, Jocelyn’s “best friend/assistant”. As an eternally put-upon character, Sennott’s bewilderment mirrors that of the assaulted audience. To her, as to us, it all feels a bit much.
The weakest link is Tesfaye—the weak end, if you will. The Weeknd is a highly talented artist who has parlayed his Michael Jackson-esque stylings into a singularly cool sound, but acting may be one bridge too far. His mysterious character is called Tedros Tedros— like Humbert Humbert, perhaps, the impossibly articulate paedophile narrator from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—and the show tries to build him a vampiric aura, an aura Jocelyn can’t resist, only because the script forces her to fall for him. He talks about pop music as “the ultimate Trojan horse”, mentions Prince and is later awestruck when Jocelyn has a Prince poster in her house, saying “there are no coincidences”. Groan.
It would potentially have been interesting to see what Tesfaye could show us in terms of music manipulation—as an artist who has built a unique career out of a familiar, iconic vibe—but Tedros doesn’t go for deep cuts. When he needs to give Jocelyn an example of a singer sounding sexed up, he points to Donna Summer’s heavy breathing in Love To Love You Baby. Here is a man who likes the obvious.
There are a couple of interesting observations, all from Jane Adams having a good time as the hard-edged record producer. In the first episode, she declares that “mental illness is sexy” because it allows unworthy men to imagine that because these goddess-like superstars are flawed, they stand a shot with them. It’s an intriguing thought but the show doesn’t linger on ideas. It would rather show us Jocelyn in a tiny skirt striding past a precariously low-angled camera.
The Idol is also not a well-directed show, extremely surprising since Levinson did some striking things with Euphoria; even his Malcolm & Marie (Netflix), where a couple essentially arm-wrestled with thesis statements, was emphatically directed. Here the obviousness of the storytelling doesn’t mesh with the length of the hour-long episodes and we are treated, therefore, to three separate shots of Eli Roth unable to get past a security guard asking for his ID. I was turned off by the first episode but persisted due to some Euphoria-tinged hope, but the second episode—where Jocelyn has a meltdown—convinced me to give up on The Idol.
Nicolas Winding Refn made a deeply trippy horror film called The Neon Demon, featuring Elle Fanning as a doe-eyed babe in the LA woods who is so consumed by supermodel jealousy that she… consumes supermodels. It’s a tour de force that provokes the audience and forces thought and debate. The Idol desperately wants to be all those things but it ends up being far worse than even a dirty pleasure—it’s a show so disgusting that you may want to take a shower afterwards. It’s a neon lemon.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.