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Yes, The Idol is the worst scripted show in HBO history
Image: HBO

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Yes, The Idol is the Worst Scripted Show in HBO History 

The musical industry “satire,” from Sam Levinson and The Weeknd, failed for three big reasons: It had horrible lead performances, it was trying way too hard to be shocking, and it had just about nothing to say. 

The Idol, the HBO series that wrapped up its five-episode run on Sunday night, got a great deal of attention for a show that nobody much liked. 

The show, the seeming brainchild of pop star Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Euphoria co-creator Sam Levinson, was positioned as a grand statement — one with lots of sex, some of it of the kinky variety — about pop stardom today. It told the story of a Britney Spears-like pop star (Lily-Rose Depp), at a crucial moment of her career, falling under the spell of a guru (Tesfaye) who may very well be a pimp and cult leader. 

Sadly, the show ended up being a huge mess and worst scripted series in HBO’s more than 40-year history, beating out the previous champion, The Mind of the Married Man. 

What went wrong here? Many, many things. 

Image: HBO

Neither lead was good in the show, at all. Depp’s Jocelyn was utterly unconvincing as a pop superstar, as she was notably lacking in charisma, and everything we heard of her music was absolutely awful. Tesfaye, a non-actor, was even worse, not able to convey much of anything. 

The Idol had just about nothing new or interesting to say about stardom, celebrity, the music business, or cults. Sure, it’s all very cynical about everything, but we’ve seen all that before. And its seemingly inexplicable conclusion was like a less successful version of Whiplash‘s ending. 

I wasn’t “offended” by the show, by its sexuality, or by the graphic sex scenes. I was more bothered because one could tell all along that the series was trying, very very hard at all times, to be shocking. But from the sex scenes to the dialogue (“mental illness is sexy!”), it wasn’t shocking, it was just faking it. SNL’s Chloe Fineman nailed everything silly about the show, after the first episode: 

These days, whenever a show or a movie has a lot of sex in it, there’s always a tendency for advance media coverage to imply the show’s sex will be the most shocking that anyone has ever seen. More often than not, lately, this has been used as a smokescreen for a project that isn’t very good- this was certainly the case for last year’s film Don’t Worry Darling, and even more so for The Idol. 

Image: HBO

Yes, the show was probably doomed by that Rolling Stone story, which ran in March and stated that the show, months before its debut, had gone ” wildly, disgustingly off the rails.” The story also revealed that the show’s original director, critical favorite Amy Seimetz, had been sacked with the show 80 percent done, leading to Levinson taking over and essentially re-shooting the show. The story also said the series was supposed to have six episodes, one more than what aired- and gave away the ending of the series, almost verbatim.

The one big strength of The Idol was the supporting cast, with the likes of Hank Azaria, Dan Levy, Eli Roth, Jane Adams, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph playing a retinue of record executives and managers, and Suzanna Son (from Red Rocket) and Moses Sumney (of the outstanding experimental concert film Blackalachia) as cult members. It indicates that maybe the show would have been better if the two lead characters hadn’t been in it at all. 

The Idol was disliked by the tiresome scolds of the left and the right. The former consisted of a lot of people with little understanding of the difference between depiction and endorsement, as well as those who think there should never be sex scenes at all. The former, led by The Parents Television and Media Council (remember them?), called for the show to be canceled. 

It would be great if both groups of scolds were wrong to hate a show that was otherwise good, but sadly, this time, they were both right. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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