The Culture Is Lit and I Had a Ball: On HBO’s “The Idol”

Sophie Frances Kemp reviews HBO’s “The Idol.”

The Culture Is Lit and I Had a Ball: On HBO’s “The Idol”

ON THE BALCONY, in a wide-angle shot, smoking a cigarette. She has the phone to her head. She’s wearing a rugby shirt. In the background, the chirping of crickets, Los Angeles at sunset. The camera zooms in; you can hear the sound of her cigarette burning. She smiles. This is one of the only moments on Sam Levinson’s new show The Idol that is actually good. It is good because it’s quiet. It is good because all we have to do in that moment is look at Lily-Rose Depp’s character, Jocelyn, in a moment of stillness. It is a rare instance of naturalism in a show that is obsessed, addicted, to the idea of celebrity as it relates to artifice. That is what The Idol is: all bright lights, big titties, fast cars, baggies of blow. Girls in thongs dancing on tables. Moses Sumney in a shock collar. Senseless violence, made sensual.

All of it is boring, but at this point, you probably know that. Because The Idol, at this point, is as much about the reaction as it is the actual show. It is not interesting to continue to talk about how this show fails as both art and entertainment. The dialogue is stilted, ridiculous. The conceit is even weirder and worse, something about a sex cult—but it’s also about becoming a pop star? And Depp is supposed to be, like, Zoomer Britney? She cries on the set of her music video because she can’t get the dance down quite right, and it is brutal but obvious. Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd) is so cruel that it becomes mind-numbing. What is most notable about The Idol, the thing that it is getting the most attention for, is the sex. There is a lot of it. Gratuitous, pornographic, excessive. You would not call it sexy. It is, however, where things get interesting in a show that is otherwise almost exquisitely boring. What is original about The Idol is the way it handles sex. This is mostly because it is made by a man. Or, to be more specific, it is made by a man imagining what it is like for a woman to want something she really should not have.

Because The Idol, above all else, is a love story. If you dropped out after the first episode, which is what I would have done if I were not writing about it for a magazine, allow me to catch you up. Jocelyn is a pop star. Tedros is a nightclub owner. They meet because one of her backup dancers tells her they have to check out this club, so they check out this club. Jocelyn is immediately enamored by Tedros’s sex appeal. Tedros is immediately enamored by Jocelyn’s star. The main activity they do is have over-the-top but not-actually-that-kinky sex. Tedros quickly becomes cruel. He berates her, abuses her. Jocelyn likes it but it is, like, killing all of her friends and the members of her team. It’s all heavy-handed, all brutalized by metaphor in the way that reading The Great Gatsby in a high school English class is brutalized by metaphor. The green light is a sign!!! So is the hairbrush Jocelyn’s mom used to hit her with, which Tedros uses during sex. Call it a show about sexploitation, about putting yourself in a bad situation on purpose.

Here is the thing about pop culture in the past 10 years: much of it, when trying to be sexy, is actually really prudish. The 2010s, to me, feel like a blur. A rose-gold living room with a velvet couch and a sugary scented candle. A paint-and-sip watercolor class where everyone makes art about their own vagina. Girls smoking weed and wearing baseball caps in Broad City. Abuse, done up in Monterey chiaroscuro by way of Big Little Lies. Crying on the way to save girls forever by voting for Hillary. Feminism gone pop, pop gone feminist. Sitting on the bed of a guy you really want to fuck and then drying up when he asks: “Can I kiss you?”

The Idol is the inevitable backlash to 10 years of trying really hard to be really good as a woman. And after all that, the Venus flytrap would turn itself inside-out and bite your hand and you’d be too numb to realize you were bleeding. Perhaps what is interesting about The Idol is that it is a uniquely disgusting, postfeminist piece of pop culture. It is what happens when you let men try to make art about what it’s like to suffer and be a girl, and and you’re like: Do whatever you want, I do not care, spend nearly tens of millions of dollars writing a show about a pop star who just wants to have sex that feels like rape. Isn’t that novel? Giving a powerful man carte blanche (or to quote Tedros, cartay blanchay) to write a classic little tale of sex and deception? Isn’t that delightfully retrograde?

It’s retrograde, sure, but it is not delightful. It is what makes The Idol bad. Writing sex scenes that are supposed to feel like rape is always corny. It is always embarrassing. Romanticizing abuse is one of the oldest tricks in the book! It’s the first thing girls write short stories about: my boyfriend was so awful; I looked so beautiful when he made me cry. I am guilty of this too, as are most women. I’ll tell you about a time it happened to me, to prove a point that writing about sex that feels like rape has to be cheesy. I was 25. He asked me out on the internet (so fun). I walked away with a terrifying bruise that covered my entire thigh. I was so proud. I texted him about it. I had to hide it from my parents the next day when we went to the beach, so I wore a pair of shorts all day. I took selfies. I drank a margarita at 2:00 p.m. I sat there and read Lolita for the first time and on the subway ride I listened to “White Dress” by Lana Del Rey and Broad Channel looked like a kiddie pool full of jet skis and clapboard houses falling into the water. Isn’t that all so clichéd? Aren’t you embarrassed for me?

I was embarrassed for Jocelyn throughout the show’s excruciatingly long five episodes. I felt embarrassed when Tedros, in one memorable moment, says to her while fucking: “Imagine my tongue on your pussy, my fat tongue. I wanna grab you by the ass … while I suffocate you with my cock. I want you to choke on it. Oh yeah, just like that, baby.” I felt embarrassed because it’s some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in my whole life, but also because it is an image of sex so clearly derived from porn—and therefore the kind of sex that many more people are having than you’d like to think. Because sex, when you’re being performative about it, when you’re having it in a scary way, is always humiliating. You say insane stuff. You allow people to say insane stuff. You make the right moves. You play the part, act like a slut. You go with the flow, girl.

I do not think that Sam Levinson got this right on purpose. If I were to psychologize him, which you are never supposed to do as a critic, I’d say that I think he was just trying to make something hot and shocking. He wanted to make a rape revenge like Kill Bill without the revenge! Just the rape! That’s what is so novel about it to me: someone gave this man upwards of 75 million dollars to show how humiliating it is to be a girl who has put herself in a bad situation on purpose and to have no meaningful resolution. That’s something that could not have happened 10 years ago. Because we were still deluding ourselves that all women who survived abuse were badass warriors. Jocelyn isn’t a badass. She’s just a sad girl in a horrible situation. She never gets to experience redemption. The show ends with her getting back together with Tedros. With her riding on a golf cart down a long concrete tunnel, arriving onstage in a gauzy white dress, introducing her paramour as the love of her life. Because what else could possibly happen at the miserable end of a miserable show.


Sophie Frances Kemp is a writer from Schenectady, New York, based in Brooklyn. She has written for The Paris Review, GQ, The Baffler, and Pitchfork. She has a forthcoming novel called Paradise Logic.

LARB Contributor

Sophie Frances Kemp is a writer from Schenectady, New York, based in Brooklyn. She has written for The Paris Review, GQ, The Baffler, and Pitchfork. She has a forthcoming novel called Paradise Logic.


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