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HBO’s The Idol is a PR dream machine

If the aim was simply to generate memes, horrified think pieces and endless Twitter discourse, the writers have at least landed their goal

It still remains unclear whether Sam Levinson and The Weeknd wrote The Idol specifically to be hate-watched, to throw their hat into the post-woke culture race, or just to pique our morbid curiosity, but it feels as though there is no way it was made in earnest. HBO’s controversial show wrapped last night, amid audience speculation that it was cut an episode short for poor ratings (though this claim was denied by HBO).

But Levinson (creator of Euphoria), The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye, who also stars in the show) and Reza Fahim’s series was controversial long before its release. An initial version helmed by director Amy Seimetz and Levinson was completely scrapped, the overhaul a rumoured result of Tesfaye’s inclination that Seimetz’s vision brought too much “female perspective”. A slew of slanderous articles followed, including a piece by Rolling Stone that claimed production had gone “off the rails” and that the reworked version resembled “twisted torture porn”. Even before this, Sam Levinson’s reputation was in question, with four Euphoria actresses reportedly asking him to cut unnecessary nude scenes, or expressing discomfort with the creator’s requests.

This controversy only amplified once The Idol aired last month, sparking streams of internet discourse that deemed it bizarre, misogynistic and grotesque. The show follows hyper-sexualised pop star, Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) as she has a meltdown over the future of her career in the wake of losing her mother, and struggles to produce the music she feels she must in order to become a "once in a generation artist”. Preying on her weakness, Tedros (Tesfaye), a cretinous club owner and pseudo-cult leader from the fringes of LA, ingratiates himself into her life and career, attempting to lead a sex cult that revolves around pushing Jocelyn and her friends to violent physical, emotional and sexual limits. What ensues is a scattershot ‘dark side of fame’ narrative that drifts from music video-like montages, to cringe-inducing 50 Shades-esque BDSM, to tired, derivative debates about the nature of the music industry.

The writing is, at best, clumsy, leaving characters vague and inconsistent, and their relationships unconvincing. After spending more than five hours with them (each episode averages an hour and a half) they still feel only half-committed to themselves: Jocelyn’s ‘meltdown’ leaves her quite well composed, the power dynamics between her friends and Tedros flip whenever called for by the plot and insight into the motivations of these industry figures rarely digs deeper than “greed is bad, actually”.

The way the characters interact with each other gives the feeling that the script was churned out by ChatGPT, with the inputs fed from the back corners of Levinson’s and Tesfaye’s arrogantly capacious imaginations, plugging in whatever they perceive as edgy and boundary-pushing. And then there are the handful of scenes in each episode where the characters have excessively drawn-out, rote conversations, pondering what making music really means, cancel culture, how the industry functions and what it’s worth. These moments are so unbearably tedious and vacuous that they feel included to serve as a mandated phone scrolling break.

In spite of this, the acting is not particularly bad. Though the clickbait casting appears designed largely to prompt Twitter searches, the actors deliver grounded, strong performances – particularly Lily-Rose Depp, Rachel Sennott, Troye Sivan and Moses Sumney (though the same can’t really be said about Tesfaye).

But now that the show has ended we have to ask the question: what was the point of it all? Did we just sit through five weeks of cringe-worthy torture porn for its own sake? As the show comes to an end, any attempt to deduce the writer’s intentions has proven futile.

We find ourselves at an awkward juncture in popular culture, where many young people are openly rejecting pearl-clutching political correctness and ‘wokeness’. Unfortunately, the contrarian, edgelord ideology that has subsequently trickled into culture feels like it hasn’t bought anything of substance – it’s just shock for shock’s sake. Maybe The Idol writers were just part of this trend; a derivative response to this post-woke identity crisis we seem to have found ourselves in (if that’s the case, the show ironically makes a strong case against rawness or vulgarity by being so embarrassing). But if the aim was simply to contribute to shock culture, generate memes, horrified think pieces and endless Twitter discourse, the writers have at least landed their goal.

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