Sunday’s season (series?) finale of the HBO drama “The Idol” was the show’s best episode yet — but only a few reputations will survive this summer disaster.
Episode 5 saw characters put on some clothes and get out of pop star Jocelyn’s (Lily-Rose Depp) house for once. Director Sam Levinson (“Euphoria”) showed some of the visual dazzle for which he is famous, with long shots that were practically Kubrickian. Dirtball Svengali Tedros (Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye) received a measure of comeuppance, even as the show continued to affirm his alleged brilliance.
It was the best episode of “The Idol,” meaning it will be the worst episode of television this week. Shapeless, stupid and too performatively erotic and shocking, the five-episode collaboration among Levinson, music superstar Tesfaye and Reza Fahim is one of the worst shows ever made.
One’s degree of disdain for it, however, might depend on their awareness of its behind-the-scenes backstory. Anyone going in cold can recognize that Tesfaye, who plays a supposedly irresistible nightclub owner and talent manager, is far less compelling when acting than when performing as The Weeknd. But his meme-able lack of acting chops does not make you mad, per se. We’re not still burning over Madonna’s performance in “Shanghai Surprise,” after all.
But factor in how Levinson reshot and retooled episodes of “The Idol” already filmed by the talented director Amy Seimetz (“The Girlfriend Experience”) — reportedly at the behest of Tesfaye in an attempt to sex up the joint and sand away more “feminist” edges — and “The Idol” becomes appalling.
The dreck that reached our screens suggests overconfidence at best and arrogance and noblesse oblige (“noblessay obligay” in Tedros-ese) at worst. Even if Tesfaye’s ego were not behind the reshoots, there’s still plenty of blame to go around. Levinson and HBO must have been aware of Tesfaye’s acting capabilities from the footage that already existed. They knew, yet they went ahead and foisted Tedros and his rattail on us, insisting a character lacking in charisma or profundity could attract a pop star who has seen and done it all. Sure, Jocelyn had just lost her momager and had a breakdown when she met Tedros. But she had not had a lobotomy, to our knowledge.
“The Idol,” at its core, rests on the idea that Kevin Federline was the true figure of fascination in the much-discussed relationship between him and Britney Spears. “The Idol” creators seem to have examined the real-life and fictional narratives of hugely talented female stars influenced by unlikely romantic partners and concluded the Bobby Browns, Simon Monjacks and Norman Maineses on the scene deserved an on-screen avatar, making him extra gross for good measure so characters could remark on what a loser he is before grudgingly acknowledging his genius. “The Idol” wants us to believe Tedros contains multitudes, even if those multitudes include a scantily clad group of acolytes he moves into Jocelyn’s mansion and at least a few bed bugs.
This show did not have to be the disaster it turned out to be. There can be a built-in “what-does-she-see-in-him” curiosity regarding celebrities’ unexpected romantic choices. But the interloper in our beloved celebrity’s life needs to exude at least a Federline-level modicum of magnetism. A whiff of danger is even better. Tesfaye possessed neither.
A hype man lacking in hype, Tedros’ public wooing of Jocelyn on the mic in his nightclub was so quiet, muffled and lacking in oomph that you wonder how she even understood what he was doing. Naturally soft-spoken, with big, kind eyes he often hid behind shades in the manner of his Canadian countryman Corey Hart — Tesfaye is simply too mild a presence to be believed as a sexual liberator and muse. Therefore, Tedros’ sexy times with Jocelyn are too laughably implausible for the “torture porn” accusations against this show to truly resonate.
This is not to say “The Idol” is not hideously sexist, misogynistic, homophobic (an aspect of the show never properly addressed or reconciled) and wildly hypocritical. Depp appeared topless or in peekaboo outfits throughout much of the season. Levinson made sure to inform us this is part of Jocelyn’s newfound agency by having Jocelyn override the “intimacy coordinator” who urged her to keep her clothes on during a photo shoot.
Even though a no-nudity clause was included by her team to protect her image, Jocelyn wants to be free.
The real-life pop star in this show, by contrast, shows very little skin, despite his character engaging in many sex acts on screen. We catch what might be glimpses of Tesfaye’s bare torso in dimly lit shots, but otherwise his physical presentation is practically Victorian, with a hint of bare chest here, a naked calf there. The cumulative impression is of a star protecting his image, and a director famous for asking the far less famous actors he casts (including Depp) to strip, making an exception for the biggest star in the ensemble. He also happens to be male, of course.
Levinson occasionally tried to inject some cynicism via industry insiders played by Jane Adams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Hank Azaria. But he mostly fanboys all over “The Idol,” paying fictional homage to Tesfaye’s real-life songwriting and producing talents with scene after boring scene of Tedros-orchestrated recording sessions featuring snippets of songs that do not add up to much. Real-life hip-hop producer Mike Dean appeared as himself in a haze of pot smoke and on-screen awkwardness. He seemed to have been brought in to up the “cool” factor and make Tesfaye seem like a real actor by comparison.
It is hard to imagine that Tesfaye, who started out with little to gain and then lost a lot with this acting gambit, will ever want to star in another show. But Levinson, the showrunner truly responsible for this trainwreck, will likely continue to be feted as the innovator he really isn’t — has “Euphoria” ever shown any forward momentum? — as long as he stays with HBO. The premium cable channel’s love for him seems to know no bounds, judging by the decision to air the final version of “The Idol” and honor it with a lavish premiere at Cannes, rather than scrapping it.
Years from now, the “Idol” cast members who made it through without embarrassing themselves will be remembered fondly, a la Gina Gershon and “Showgirls.” There will be a few: Adams and Randolph stay razor-sharp throughout. Rachel Sennott, as Jacqueline’s assistant and friend Leia, nails the squishy yet still present morality of the young Hollywood professional who still contains enough civilian to be truly corrupted.
Almost miraculously, Depp also emerged from “The Idol” unscathed. Her performance here might even have positioned her for real-life stardom. Despite the occasional flat line reading, she has a palpable screen presence, and imparts a world-weariness and a steeliness unusual for someone her age. Jocelyn and Leia are the only characters on this show who seem like they might exist in the real world (or at least in a pop star’s heightened version of the world). Depp is also a solid singer, although her vocal prowess doesn’t approach that of Suzanna Son, who plays a sweet Tedros hanger-on, or of Tesfaye, one of the best singers in pop music.
Not that we get to hear much of The Weeknd, apart from tantalizing snippets from the show’s soundtrack. All the way up to the moment in the finale when Jocelyn brings Tedros on stage at her concert, we keep hoping Tesfaye will break into song, and perhaps turn “The Idol” into at least a momentarily entertaining show. But it turns out that Tesfaye, much like Tedros when he pressures people to do cocaine in front of him, is merely threatening us with a good time.
The first season of “The Idol” is available on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.