Apr 23, 2023

The Idol review

Starring a bizarrely blank Lily-Rose Depp, this big, dumb drama from the maker of Euphoria is desperate to be edgy – but ends up feeling boring and, well, unsexy

Fittingly, for a show so concerned with its own ideas about artifice and superficiality, the first 20 minutes of The Idol give the impression of a drama that is much better, more robust and more interesting than it goes on to become. Euphoria creator Sam Levinson writes and directs this cartoonishly sleazy tale of a pop star's gilded life and the guru who sweeps in to shake it and her up. The Idol is already so drenched in noise – is it exploitative? too outrageous? – that it is simply leaning in to the controversy; the streaming platform I watch it on is advertising it as a "headline-making drama".

That's one way of spinning the more negative reports that have emerged about the show's production, but it also provides a heads-up that the programme is going to try hard to be shocking. For its more successful opening scenes, it does this with humour. Pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp, looking blank, though this is surely deliberate) is shooting the cover for her new album, then rehearsing with dancers in the garden of her mansion as a PR crisis explodes in the background: she becomes the top trending topic on Twitter because someone leaks a photograph of her with semen on her face. Her live agent is furious and worries that 14-year-old girls will no longer buy tickets to watch her performing a song called I’m a Freak, the lyrics of which include the lines, "Get down on your knees and get ready to become my bitch."

Initially, The Idol is chaotic and brash, an over-the-top satire of fame. Jocelyn's team of managers, assistants, PRs and label executives quip away as they work out how to handle the scandal before she finds out about it. "What Britney and Jocelyn have been through is unique … but universal," decides publicist Benjamin (Dan Levy). Jocelyn has previously had a breakdown, so the Britney Spears parallel is obvious, but it is highlighted anyway, with a tribute in the choreography, too.

The opening also reveals The Idol's deeply irritating tic of responding to imagined criticism and disguising this as dialogue. Label boss Nikki (Jane Adams) gloats that Jocelyn is "young, beautiful and damaged", while creative director Xander (Troye Sivan) worries that they are "romanticising mental illness". She snaps back at "you college-educated internet people" who are ruining everyone's fun. "Stop trying to cock-block America," she says. This grievance with "college-educated internet people" runs and runs, which is a bit rich considering that internet people are the oxygen this show breathes, with its desperation for people to talk about it. Still, it's entertaining, in an obnoxious way, and I begin to wonder if The Idol isn't quite the "headline-making drama" I was expecting it to be.

Sign up to What's On

Get the best TV reviews, news and exclusive features in your inbox every Monday

after newsletter promotion

Enter Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, AKA the Weeknd). Jocelyn meets him when she walks into his club, where he is MCing like a DJ at a northern wedding. He talks so much on the mic that he's one sentence away from announcing that the buffet is open. "Are you here to fuck?" he shouts. No, I’m only here for the cheese and pineapple on sticks. Tedros is a charisma drain who sucks any residual spark from the show. In one of the many lines that seem designed to be a talking point, Jocelyn's assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) says she hates his vibe: "He's so rapey." "Yeah, I kinda like that about him," drawls Jocelyn, edgily.

He feeds her the dreariest of chat-up lines ("How could anyone not fall in love with you?", "You fit perfectly into my arms") and she worries that her music is shallow, which gives him the chance to mansplain pop. "I think Prince would disagree with you," he huffs, at which point I stop laughing with the show and start to laugh at it. Jocelyn plays I’m a Freak to Tedros as they engage in some light bondage, and he suggests that she doesn't sound like she "knows how to fuck". "What makes you think I don't know how to fuck?" she replies. "Your vocal performance," he says, at which point I lose it entirely.

Having created the discourse, The Idol dutifully tries to fulfil its role at the centre, but it all feels a bit stiff. It aims for Paul Verhoeven – Jocelyn and Leia even watch Basic Instinct together – but so far, it's more of a tribute act. It's a big, dumb spectacle, and while I don't hate it, by the end of the first hour, I am a little bored.

Privacy Notice: