'The Idol' review: 'Euphoria' creator's controversial new show shocks and awes

Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd headline HBO's next hot topic show.
By Lex Briscuso  on 
Lily-Rose Depp brings star power to "The Idol."
Lily-Rose Depp brings star power to "The Idol." Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

The opening minute of The Idol reveals, in all its chameleonic glory, exactly what it’s working with. Leading lady Lily-Rose Depp takes instruction from a cameraman, as her character, the inimitable music sensation Jocelyn, poses for her album cover. Oscillating between confident, vulnerable, sexy, and sad, the pop star generously gives her audience — us, the folks at home, but also the world and anyone who will engage — every bit of herself in an attempt to connect, yet to also hide within their gaze, the gaze she knows better than anything. The result is an electric charge of a series, one that builds off of the foundations of emotional wreckage and unfettered desire, both for others and for the best of life itself.

The Idol is a raucous, engrossing ride on an industry nightmare train bound to careen off a cliff, and the way it captures the sickness of the fame machine will stay with you long after the credits roll. 

What's The Idol about? 

Lily-Rose Depp and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye embrace in "The Idol."
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

The new HBO series from Euphoria's Sam Levinson, Reza Fahim, and Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye follows Jocelyn, a pop phenom making her way back onto the scene — at the behest of her calculated and strategic team — after a year-long break. Her world was certifiably rocked when her mother died, and it’s taken everything within her to come out the other side. When she meets Tedros (Tesfaye), a mysterious manager/producer/club owner who sets his sights on her during a club night, she finds and loses herself all at once. But she’s willing to take the risk.

How controversial is The Idol?

Jane Adams plays a record exec in "The Idol."
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

There’s no denying that this production, along with creative leaders Levinson and Tesfaye, have been mired in controversy(opens in a new tab). And let’s be real, the show delights in controversy.

The central plight of the pilot comes in the form of a revenge porn scandal. The show seems excited to build up to a head, the point where we see the actual photograph in question. Unconventional masturbation methods, particularly kinky foreplay, and questionable sexual impulses are also on display throughout the first two episodes that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Even some of the show’s dialogue plays for shock value, like when Tedros instructs Jocelyn on how to pleasure herself for his gaze at the end of episode 2. 

The world has experienced the undeniably subversive tinges of Euphoria and the sex-forward music of The Weeknd. So the provocative tone is almost predictable coming from these two. But there are times — particularly within the dialogue and actions of the main antagonist — when the desire to push the envelope in The Idol does come off as contrived. That said, it rarely happens in relation to Depp or the key points of her emotional arc, and more so surrounding the nature of Tedros.   

Hank Azaria, Jane Adams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Rachel Sennott dazzle in The Idol.

Rachel Sennott as Leia in "The Idol."
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

The core of The Idol, and the message it’s trying to send about the harsh heart of stardom, is what holds the most weight. The show would be nothing without its characters and the performances of a cast on fire. Jocelyn is nothing without her sprawling team, and everyone on it is bringing everything they have to the table.

Hank Azaria and Da’Vine Joy Randolph — as Jocelyn’s managers Chaim and Dee, respectively — are fun to watch, bringing a calculated, protective sense of smarts to the group that Jocelyn lacks from the other folks in her camp. It's clear they actually care about her, and despite their corporate interests, they aim to truly do what is right for her. 

Their adversary is Jocelyn’s label rep Nikki (the brilliant Jane Adams). Now, there’s a person to watch out for. Adams perfects the sneaky insidiousness of industry heads who have nothing but their own bank accounts on the brain. Every move she makes is with staggering purpose, and she is ruthless in her words, unwilling to take no for an answer when cash is on the line. 

Rounding out the group is Jocelyn’s best friend and assistant, the hilarious Leia, played by Bodies Bodies Bodies standout Rachel Sennott. Known for brassy and acerbic comedic turns, Sennott offers her most nuanced and effective performance to date, toeing the line of friend and employee with a sense of terror and responsibility. It feels as though Leia intimately understands what Leia’s role is in Jocelyn’s life, yet sometimes doesn’t entirely have the wherewithal to play it.

Such is life when friendship becomes business. It’s a smart and complicated performance that marries Sennott’s gift of wit with her innate dramatic skill. She’s a natural, as she’s proven already in her short career, from Shiva Baby to the upcoming Bottoms, and she adds profound personal depth to the story alongside the other members of Jocelyn’s crew. 

How is Lily-Rose Depp in The Idol?

Lily-Rose Depp sings in "The Idol."
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

Ultimately, Depp is the natural heart and soul of the show, and her performance gracefully rises to the occasion. Jocelyn feels like an extension of herself in the best way, with Depp using her own personal quirks and impulses, like her deep voice and near-permanent natural sultry stare, to shape someone new in her own skin. Rather than resting on her real-life glamour and desirability, though, she turns the dial up to 11 and finds ways to disappear inside the high-flying stakes of Jocelyn’s world and persona. 

We recognize Depp onscreen for who she is offscreen — the child of celebrity, someone who has never known a normal person’s life. And the show invites us to remake her in our own minds into what she, and by extension her character, truly is: a woman aware of her place in the world, even if she doesn’t always show it.

Hers is an inspired powerhouse performance from an actor who has yet to have the honest chance to shine, having appeared in less serious pieces like Kevin Smith’s wacky horror Tusk and its sequel Yoga Hosers, on top of underseen dramas like Wolf and Voyagers. It’s a fitting gift for Depp to receive that chance in a show like The Idol, which gives her space to connect to a character and inform the work through her own experiences. 

Abel Tesfaye brings The Weeknd persona, but not a worthy performance, to The Idol. 

Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

That said, not everyone is batting a thousand in this show. For all his involvement, good or bad, behind the scenes or otherwise, it cannot be understated how gratuitous and uninspired Tesfaye’s performance is.

To Jocelyn, Tedros is clearly supposed to be enigmatic, someone who actually feels mystical and like a savior. It’s really the only way to make a character like that — one whose purpose is to manipulate and mislead someone who is smarter than they think — work on the whole. What we get from Tesfaye, however, is a gratuitous attempt at allure and a rather vile sense of confidence. 

His dialogue, which is often crude and shocking for shock’s sake, reads as though he personally wanted to say as many unsavory and scummy things he could get away with in the guise of a role. But really, it’s just an extension of the persona he puts forth in his own music — essentially an extension of his real-life self, or at least the one he lets the world see.

Though Depp is also using herself as a jump point for character-building, Tesfaye’s attempts are nowhere near as interesting. Both Levinson and Tesfaye — who has writing credits on the show as well — are at fault for this wonky failure. There’s practically zero actual charm or introspection from Tedros, who is too major an element of the show for this not to matter. Frankly, he comes off as cringe, especially when Depp is quietly giving her soul to the show. 

The series certainly has a tendency to pander to the sexual fantasies of men in power — hint hint, nudge nudge — but when it comes to Jocelyn’s ascension to greatness and the revelations of the dark heart of the industry machine, The Idol is a surprisingly nuanced, well rounded, and deliciously bold take on the cost of fame and the drive for greatness. Depp’s engaging and tender performance reaches out, almost asking us to watch over her as she journeys to the other side of stardom. As the glue of this tale, there is nothing more satisfying, or scary, than watching her take the plunge, dive in, and nearly drown. 

The Idol was reviewed out of the Cannes Film Festival. The show will premiere on HBO(opens in a new tab) June 4.

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Lex Briscuso is a critic, culture writer, and radio host living in Brooklyn with bylines at /Film, The Wrap, Inverse, Little White Lies, The Guardian, Fangoria, Vulture, Roger Ebert, EUPHORIA., Dread Central, and Shudder's The Bite. 

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