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Goodbye, The Idol: the controversial HBO show has been cancelled, and it won’t be missed

 (Sky/HBO)
(Sky/HBO)

It’s finally happened, but is anyone surprised? Months after the final episode aired, HBO have officially announced that they will not be renewing their controversial series The Idol for a second season.

Billed as one of 2023’s most exciting shows, The Idol told the story of Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a pop star with a life ripped straight from the Britney Spears guidebook. Her career is on the rocks, she’s having a meltdown and then – horrors – she meets Tedros, a sort of sex-cult god played by The Weeknd. Together, they embark on what is supposed to be a passionate love affair. The problem is, they have more toxic chemistry than a tanker full of hazardous waste.

“The Idol was one of HBO’s most provocative original programs, and we’re pleased by the strong audience response,” an HBO spokesperson said, confirming the news. “After much thought and consideration, HBO, as well as the creators and producers have decided not to move forward with a second season. We’re grateful to the creators, cast, and crew for their incredible work.”

“Strong audience response” is one way of looking at it. Was there any part of it that wasn’t brain-meltingly awful? Over the course of five episodes, we were subjected to Lily-Rose Depp doing hip-damaging gyrations on all sorts of hard surfaces, The Weeknd doing his best to portray a dead-eyed shark and more problematic relationship dynamics than you could shake a sex toy at.

Why was it so bad? Well, let’s take a look at the reviews, which will no doubt be inscribed upon the show’s tombstone when the time comes, and through which we can dissect what exactly went wrong with this dampest of squibs.

The acting

The Weeknd in The Idol (HBO)
The Weeknd in The Idol (HBO)

The Weeknd co-produced The Idol. In fact, he was a passionate champion of the show from the start. Why, then, did he look so depressingly unenthusiastic to be there?

“Is he supposed to be quite so chillingly unsexy?” the Independent wrote in their (otherwise quite positive) review of The Weeknd’s would-be svengali Tedros. “He stalks around like a gurning Zorro, his “rattail” hairdo protruding like a dislocated Teletubby aerial. He says embarrassing things like “This is a church for all you sinners!” and scrapes at his million-watt smile with a toothpick.”

Depp didn’t come away looking too much better. “Lily-Rose Depp plays a world-famous pop star, Jocelyn, who’s trying to revive her career after suffering a nervous collapse,” People’s review read.

“Depp has a striking face — hard, with high cheekbones, a full-lipped, scornful mouth and large, cold eyes — but she never seems damaged or vulnerable. She looks like she could put a cigarette out on Madonna’s hand without batting an eye.”

The (terrible) sex

You have to hand it to GQ: a roughly 1,500 word article on the terrible sex in The Idol probably took more time to write than the actual sex scenes themselves did.

By all accounts, it was grim stuff. “Tedros emerges from his crouched perch, with all the energy and sexual enticement of Gollum scurrying for a fish, to unzip his trousers,” they wrote, singling out a particular scene where Jocelyn essentially suffocates herself while masturbating, as Tedros tells her his dirty fantasies.

“Everything about the sex in The Idol, especially its most provocative scene yet, is like your older brother’s friend at school trying to impress you with how much he knows about f***ing… it’s male fantasy in its purest form, made by men who think they know how to tell complex stories because they can light a nipple artfully.”

Rolling Stone agreed, “They’re graphic sex-adjacent scenes that act like they’re boundary-pushing and transgressive, and play like softcore Skinemax outtakes with dialogue updated for 2023.” Ouch.

The writing

 (HBO)
(HBO)

What else would you expect from a TV show that went through as many rewrites as The Idol? The show’s original director, Amy Seimetz, quit after several episodes had already been filmed – and when Sam Levinson came on board instead, he scrapped most of what they had in favour of extensive rewrites and reshoots.

By all accounts, he should have saved the time. “Perhaps they thought they were making a telling, piercingly intelligent, super-sexy ‘parable’ — yes, I feel that’s a word they would use — about a beleaguered female star being eaten up by the pop industry,” the Times wrote. “But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels . . . hmm. It feels like being licked all over by some dirty, drunk club DJ growling: ‘Nice ass.’

“It feels incoherent, pretentious, weird, like a television show written by someone who has never met humans, let alone a woman.”

The finale

When it came to the finale, things weren’t much better. After all, what had we just watched, beyond approximately five hours of vaguely tortuous sex and deadpan actors delivering their lines in a deadpan way?

“HBO – which was until recently regarded as the home of the best that TV had to offer – spent millions upon millions of dollars to deliver women gleefully writhing, being sexualised and finding peace in admitting how much they suck,” wrote the Guardian.

“No number of nipples and butt cheeks can distract from just how unattractive the show finds its subjects, and as it concludes, it’s clear that this is intended to be only the beginning, that further cat and mouse games between Joss, Tedros, the music industry and feminism are intended. Mercifully, for us, this is the end. Hopefully the ickiness of The Idol will be cast to the annals of history. I would rather never see a nipple on screen again than have to watch a show this lousy.”

Rest in peace.