'The Idol' Isn't 'Shocking.' It's Just Boring.

The new HBO series might be trying to say something — but who knows what the hell that is.
Lily-Rose Depp appears as pop star Jocelyn in HBO's "The Idol."
Lily-Rose Depp appears as pop star Jocelyn in HBO's "The Idol."
Eddy Chen/HBO

It’s not a good sign when a purportedly serious drama series becomes the object of online mockery, as is the case with what were sometimes billed as “shocking” sex scenes in HBO’s new show “The Idol.”

That’s on top of the avalanche of headlines long before people saw it, including concerning allegations of a toxic set and reports of a massive creative overhaul in the middle of filming. And those were capped off by scathing early reviews when the first two episodes premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Series co-creator Sam Levinson has often fashioned himself as a provocateur, asserting that his depictions of teenage trauma on another HBO show, “Euphoria,” are designed to provoke debate and controversy. But increasingly, they have felt like trauma without a plot. As my colleague Ruth Etiesit Samuel astutely asked last year, all that sensationalism and shock value … for what?

In this way, “The Idol” is very on brand. If only there were anything provocative there, or its supposedly shocking scenes were in service of something narratively substantive (like with the erotic thrillers the show claims to evoke) — but instead, those scenes, like most everything in the series thus far, are boring and purposeless. And after all that’s been said and reported about “The Idol” in the lead-up to its June 4 premiere, watching the final product has been like: “Wait, this is it?

Typically, this is the point where I summarize what the series is about and what happens in it. But it’s hard to summon the energy to describe “The Idol” because, frankly, there isn’t much going on. As the show begins, pop star Jocelyn (played by Lily-Rose Depp) is trying to revive her career following the death of her mother, which plunged her into a mental health crisis. She’s being profiled by a Vanity Fair reporter as she prepares to release new music and reschedule a tour.

But everything is going wrong, from explicit photos of Jocelyn getting leaked to grueling rehearsals for a new music video that are clearly too much for her. She also begins a relationship with mysterious cult leader Tedros (portrayed by series co-creator Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, whose performance is so one-note that saying it has even one note is generous). We’re led to believe this romance could further jeopardize her chances at recovering her career, reputation and herself. But again, there’s nothing interesting going on there.

Jocelyn (Depp) gets a pep talk from manager Destiny (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) in the second episode of HBO's "The Idol."
Jocelyn (Depp) gets a pep talk from manager Destiny (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) in the second episode of HBO's "The Idol."
Eddy Chen/HBO

It seems like the show is trying to say something about the nature of celebrity, the perils of being sucked into the fame machine, and the challenges of trying to have any agency and maintain a sense of self amid all of it. Unfortunately, I could not tell you what that something is. Vaguely circling around some topics does not make a show. And trying to analyze the questions it raises — some of which would otherwise be important, like whether the series reinforces the misogyny and exploitation it’s supposedly trying to critique — gives the show more credibility than it has.

Rather than holding my attention, “The Idol” has continually made me think about other, far more compelling depictions of celebrity and power. One of them is right there on the same streaming app as “The Idol”: the Max series “I Hate Suzie.” As a teenage pop star, Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) was put through the wringer of fame. Now, as an adult, Suzie is an actor trying to maintain a sustainable career and be taken seriously.

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, “I Hate Suzie” covers some of the same territory as “The Idol,” like how it similarly begins with leaked photos that threaten to upend Suzie’s life and career prospects. In the hands of Piper and co-creator/showrunner Lucy Prebble (who was also a writer on “Succession,” another show with a perfect alchemy of tragedy and comedy), “I Hate Suzie” and its second season, “I Hate Suzie Too,” contain far more richly drawn characters, an actual point of view, and something to say.

Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper), a pop star-turned-actor trying to make a comeback in "I Hate Suzie Too."
Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper), a pop star-turned-actor trying to make a comeback in "I Hate Suzie Too."
Tom Beard

Quite simply, these are all things that “The Idol” lacks. Likely no amount of HBO money, moody lighting and Bel Air mansions can save a show that is missing crucial storytelling elements. However, in its two episodes so far, there have been glimmers that suggest the series could have had some substance.

Each episode has become moderately more interesting when shifting its perspective to the show’s ancillary characters, such as Nikki (Jane Adams), the head of Jocelyn’s record label; Leia (Rachel Sennott), Jocelyn’s assistant and best friend; and her manager Destiny (the perpetually underutilized Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who deserves her own series already). A story built around any or all of these women would have had more to explore. What is it like to manage a flailing celebrity? How did this team of crisis managers (and, to some extent, enablers) end up here?

Instead, we’re left with whatever the hell “The Idol” is trying to do. The fame machine can often turn a star into an empty spectacle — too bad “The Idol” couldn’t say something interesting about that idea, rather than be an empty spectacle itself.

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