The Idol Series 1 episode 1 ‘Pop Tarts and Rat Tails’ review: beyond the controversy, it’s just… dull

A poor performance from Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye and obnoxious direction from Euphoria's Sam Levinson distract from Lily-Rose Depp's talents in The Idol

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This review contains detailed and immediate spoilers for the first episode of The Idol, ‘Pop Tarts and Rat Tails’.

“I feel like it’s too superficial or something,” says pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), confiding in new acquaintance Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd). She’s talking about the demo recording of her next single – her first piece of new music since the death of her mother and subsequent retreat from celebrity, part of a publicity campaign to rebrand her image rather than a genuine effort to express herself artistically – but she could just as easily be describing The Idol itself. For all that the show has attracted controversy ahead of its release – from reports of a toxic atmosphere on set, embarrassing public posturing from its leads, and frankly brutal reviews after its Cannes premiere – there’s really very little of note to engage with in this self-styled sleazy love story.

At its most basic level, The Idol boasts at least an interesting premise. There’s a version of this show that acts as an incisive industry satire, and you can see glimpses of that in this first episode: The Idol opens during a photoshoot for Jocelyn’s new album, starting in close focus on her face as she affects different expressions, before gradually pulling back to reveal the scale of the production around her. Her publicist debates with the photographer and the intimacy co-ordinator over exactly how naked Jocelyn can be, carefully stage managing the entire photoshoot and calculating how much skin to reveal right down to the inch. Meanwhile, her agent and her other publicist learn that an intimate photo of Jocelyn has leaked online, and attempt to influence press coverage of the leak before she learns what happened.

The point of the juxtaposition is obvious. It’s about sex – and “sex” – bought and sold and stolen, publicised and marketed and narrated, filtered through music and image and branded persona, a commercial product that exists almost entirely distinctly from Jocelyn herself. The juxtaposition is “smart” – actually smart, even – but that’s also essentially where it stops. There’s an idea, but no elaboration; an observation, but no understanding. What could have amounted to something compelling or perceptive, or at the very least even something substantive, comes across instead as glancingly superficial. Is that… it?

After not very long at all, The Idol starts to feel like a 6/10 show (at an absolute best) no one would be paying any attention to at all if it weren’t for the involvement of creators Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye. Both are, in their own way, distracting. Tesfaye plays Tedros, a nightclub owner who is  gradually revealed to be the head of a NXIVM-style cult and starts a relationship with Jocelyn. He’s drawn to her power and fame, she to his bracing honesty as one of the few people outside her professional bubble (even her best friend and closest confidante is a live-in assistant on the payroll). It’s a role that demands a certain dangerous magnetism, an easy charm that hides something toxic; Tesfaye manages a sort of “creepy by way of Nandor the Relentless”, but with his character dressed in an unsubtle supervillain cloak comes across more like a teenager playing pretend.

Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye as Tedros in The Idol, leaning against  a marble wall (Credit: HBO)Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye as Tedros in The Idol, leaning against  a marble wall (Credit: HBO)
Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye as Tedros in The Idol, leaning against a marble wall (Credit: HBO)

Levinson, meanwhile, takes a typically heavy-handed approach. The Idol feels less ostentatiously provocative than Euphoria – for all the controversy around The Idol’s explicit content, it feels (relatively speaking) toned down compared to Euphoria – but just as eye-roll-worthy. In that opening sequence, for example, Jocelyn argues with the intimacy co-ordinator: she’s happy with more nudity, and finds his safety measures needlessly restrictive. It feels like Levinson ventriloquising through the show, writing his complaints about this production and others into the mouth of a young female character – the same goes for complaints about “out of touch college educated internet people” who won’t let audiences enjoy “sex, drugs, and hot girls” (i.e. anyone who’s ever criticised Euphoria on Twitter).  

Beyond that, there’s simply a… not a sloppiness, exactly, to Levinson’s craft, but a kind of sophomoric quality. It’s all fine, and perfectly competently made, but never really rises above that – certainly not visually, which is if nothing else supposed to be his chief skill. More to the point, there’s an odd kind of tonal imbalance here – you get the sense that The Idol is meant to be funny sometimes, between any of Rachel Sennott’s lines or Tedros’ coughing fit after doing cocaine, but Levinson directs it like he’s not entirely comfortable with any kind of jokes at all. In the end, it starts to feel like everyone involved is in a different show (particularly Hank Azaria with his comedy accent).

Depp, at least, is a strong performer – not quite strong enough to wholly make up for the sheer void where her co-star should be, but she’s capable enough to anchor proceedings as is. (Granted, that’ll likely become more of an issue as the weeks go on, and Jocelyn and Tedros become closer; Depp is impressive when paired with, for example, Hari Nef’s Vanity Fair journalist, but as The Idol leans more and more on its central dynamic it’ll no doubt falter.) Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to Depp is simply that she’s the main reason you’ll hope you could’ve seen a better version of The Idol. 

“Pop music is like the ultimate trojan horse,” Tedros tells Jocelyn. “Get people to sing along, get people to dance, you could say whatever you want. That’s powerful.” That’s clearly something the show believes of itself too – the concept apparently developed from Tesfaye’s real-life conviction that, if he wanted to, start a cult in real life – but even if The Idol itself could be used to say anything, it doesn’t actually seem like Levinson and Tesfaye have anything to say. 

The Idol airs on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am, with a subsequent repeat at 9pm. You can read more of our coverage of The Idol here, and find more of our TV reviews here.

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