“Pop music is like the ultimate Trojan horse,” Abel Tesfaye’s rat-tailed club owner tells Lily-Rose Depp’s starlet in The Idol, whose first two episodes premiered at Cannes this week. “You get people to dance, you get them to sing along, you can say whatever you want.” That’s a decent description of the music Tesfaye makes as the Weeknd, which mixes irresistible hooks (if you’ve been to a bar mitzvah recently, you’ve heard them) with lyrics about obsession and self-harm. But it doesn’t fit The Idol, the six-part series that Tesfaye created with Reza Fahim and Euphoria’s Sam Levinson that debuts on HBO on June 4. The series, which opens with a lengthy argument about just how much of her breasts Depp will be permitted to bare to a photographer (spoiler: all of them), doesn’t have the wit or the patience to smuggle in its timeworn ideas about the corrupting power of fame and money. Instead, it hits you in the face like—well, let’s just say that the first episode also features two characters debating the precise meaning of the word bukkake. It’s as if, rather than tricking the Trojans into opening their gates, the Athenians just rammed their horse into the wall.
In its original incarnation, when it was to be directed by The Girlfriend Experience showrunner Amy Seimetz, The Idol was pitched as a subversive drama about the exploitation of a young pop star who falls under the influence of a seductive cult leader. But when Seimetz was most of the way through production, she was unceremoniously removed—according to one report, because Tesfaye felt she was framing the story through too much of a “female perspective” and drawing attention away from his character—and replaced with Levinson, who immediately threw out most of if not everything Seimetz had shot. (She has no credit on the finished series.) Levinson insists on writing all of Euphoria’s scripts himself, a practice that has caused lengthy and costly delays, not behavior that would ordinarily make him a frontrunner to take over an already troubled production. (The first version of The Idol reportedly cost $75 million to shoot.) But Euphoria is also HBO’s biggest hit since Game of Thrones, and the rare legacy-media property to draw substantial Gen Z viewership, so Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has put his weight squarely behind him. As Levinson sobbed through The Idol’s requisite standing ovation at Cannes (the reaction online has been considerably less enthusiastic), there was Zaslav, standing just over his shoulder.
Zaslav wasn’t just in Cannes to snap selfies on the red carpet. He was presiding over the relaunch of the former HBO Max, now just Max, thank you, which took effect a few hours after the applause died down in the Lumière. Removing one of the most prestigious brands in media from the name of Warner Bros.’ streaming service seemed counterintuitive if not perverse—more perverse, really, than anything in The Idol. But the logic was that the HBO brand might actually be too prestigious, that it was preventing fans of Sister Wives and Jared From Subway: Catching a Monster from realizing they could watch them on the same streaming platform as Succession. The Idol is still an HBO show, but it’s one that fits more squarely with Max’s populist frontage, a show that you can watch with one eye on your phone, or even both—just listen for the moans.
The Idol’s first shot, a long pull-back from a close-up on Depp’s face as she runs through a series of emotions called out by the photographer—“Give me some innocence, now pure sex, now give me vulnerable”—seems designed to convince the haters that the show’s alleged “nepo baby” lead can really act, but Jocelyn, the former teen TV star she plays, is such a jumble of repurposed parts that Depp rarely gets that chance again. When she’s going through dance steps for an upcoming music video shoot, one character explains that the choreography is “referential,” which is one way of saying that the sight of a young woman in a barely-there costume getting caressed by an orgy’s-worth of dancers as a way of obliterating any last traces of teenage innocence is just a wee bit reminiscent of the video treatment for Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U.” (Later, she dances in a packed club to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” and the softcore posing of the opening sequence is soundtracked, in a truly spectacular bit of point-missing, with Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.”) A postcoital selfie leaked onto the internet sends her team, played by actors including Jane Adams, Hank Azaria, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Troye Sivan, into damage-control mode, which mostly seems to consist of a lot of yelling into cell phones. But the sequence does at least suggest the show is bent on demystifying the machinery of pop stardom. (Adams’ label manager Nikki even refers to Jocelyn’s forthcoming single as a “big-titted hit,” a direct lift from Network.)
But when Tesfaye’s Tedros worms his way into her life, he pitches her a more solitary vision of success: just you and me, baby. He comes on strong at his club, almost screwing her in the stairwell, then slinks back to her place, where she plays him her forthcoming single, which is full of lyrics like “Get ready to become my bitch.” It’s OK, he says, just one problem: You sound like you don’t know how to fuck. Considering that there’s a picture going viral that seems to prove quite the opposite—giving rise to the immortal line, “Twitter is calling her the human cumsock”—it’s not really clear why she’s so easily reverse slut-shamed. (As an actor, Tesfaye definitely lacks the malign charisma that would allow a man to say that and not get slapped.) But the show’s all-purpose excuse is that she’s still reeling from the death of her mother, which caused a “psychotic break” so severe that she was forced to cancel an arena tour, leaving both her career and her psyche hanging by a thread.
Before the sex lessons, though: suffocation. Restricted oxygen intake is a motif in The Idol’s first two episodes: Jocelyn chokes herself while masturbating, Tedros wraps her head in a silk robe and lets her gasp for breath until he cuts a hole in the fabric with a knife, and eventually he just offers to “suffocate you with my cock.” (In a rare moment of discretion, the show places the choking noises that follow low in the sound mix.) A show more centered in her psyche might be able to make something genuinely revealing out of her association between physical distress and sexual pleasure. But Levinson just wants to impress us with what an edgelord he is. When Rachel Sennott, who plays Jocelyn’s assistant and closest friend, warns her that Tedros seems “kinda rapey,” Jocelyn responds, “I like that about him.”
The Idol flails at enough satirical targets that it hits a few of them, such as when Nikki provides a rapaciously amoral explanation of why “mental illness is sexy,” because Jocelyn’s psychotic break makes people who couldn’t get within a hundred yards of her feel like they might still have a shot. But mostly the show just walks into the furniture, trying to scandalize the audience with tepid provocations while losing sight of the difference between satire and exploitation. It might get people to sing along, but it doesn’t have anything to say.