Oh No, The Weeknd Thinks He’s Got Something To Say
Rachel Sennott is worried. Sennott, the star of Shiva Baby and Bodies Bodies Bodies, is a truly exciting actor who can’t help but come across as a fully-formed human being. In The Idol, the Weeknd and Sam Levinson’s much-discussed new HBO show, Sennott might be the only fully-formed human being in sight. Sennott plays Leia, the friend and personal assistant to Jocelyn, the vaporous pop star played by Hollywood scion Lily-Rose Depp. One night, Leia and Jocelyn are sitting around and watching Basic Instinct, the kind of sleekly sleazy entertainment that The Idol aspires to be. Jocelyn decides that she wants some male companionship, so she’s booty calling Tedros, a mysterious nightclub owner played by the Weeknd. She’s only just met him, but she’s intrigued.
Leia isn’t sure about this Tedros guy: “He’s so rapey.”
Jocelyn: “Yeah, I kinda like that about him.”
Is that line exchange interesting to you? Is it troubling, or provocative, or revealing? If it is, then you’re presumably the target audience for The Idol, a show that’s in love with its own light transgressiveness. If you’re rolling your eyes at that dialog, then you’re probably going to roll your eyes at a lot of things that happen on The Idol. That doesn’t mean you won’t be watching, though.
There’s already been so much noise around The Idol, a show that practically works as a press release for itself. The Weeknd announced the series two years ago, and its development has been subject to a whole lot of scrutiny. Last year, director Amy Seimetz walked away from the show with the season mostly done; the Weeknd reportedly didn’t like the show’s feminist perspective. Sam Levinson, already on board as producer and co-creator, scrapped the entire series and redid it all himself. Levinson, a Hollywood scion himself, is the person behind Euphoria, the tawdry and entertaining HBO hit that thinks it’s more important than it probably is. A few months ago, Rolling Stone reported that various cast and crew members, upset over the new direction of The Idol, believed that the show was turning into “torture porn.” HBO couldn’t have bought better publicity.
Eli Roth, the director most associated with the term “torture porn,” is actually in the cast of The Idol. On last night’s pilot, Roth played a dirtbaggy Live Nation exec — one of many hangers-on who are seen freaking out over the state of Jocelyn’s career. Those freakout moments are easily the best part of the episode. As the show opens, Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn has a lot going on: An album-cover photo shoot, a choreography rehearsal, a Vanity Fair profile, a single and a tour about to launch. More pressingly, some nasty photos of her have just leaked online, and all the members of her team are freaking out. Jocelyn herself is remote, icy, and oblivious.
The presence of actual pop stars, both mainstream and niche, in the cast of The Idol lends a strange dimension to the show itself. One of my biggest issues with the show is that I don’t buy Lily-Rose Depp as a pop star. Jocelyn is modeled on Britney Spears — a parallel so obvious that one of the characters goes ahead and says it out loud. But even in the darkest moments of her career, Britney Spears was present. Her music had personality, and you could understand why she still intrigued people. I don’t get any of that from Jocelyn.
The whole PR-freakout setpiece happens at Jocelyn’s house, and it’s shot at the Weeknd’s real house. At one point, we see Jocelyn practicing some very porny choreography with a whole crew of dancers. She watches her stand-in, and then she tries to nail those moves herself. The stand-in is played by Jennie Ruby Jane, from the hugely popular K-pop group BLACKPINK. When I looked at Twitter after the episode ended last night, a lot of what I saw was K-pop fans freaking out at the scene of Jennie dancing lasciviously — something that she doesn’t do in BLACKPINK. But what really struck me about that scene was how Jennie managed to broadcast vitality and charisma when she’s supposed to be going through the motions — something that Lily-Rose Depp never once does. You have to do that stuff to be a pop star.
Those early scenes are fun because of the cast surrounding Jocelyn and because of the Altman-style chaotic energy. Jocelyn’s handlers are all fun to watch. Along with Rachel Sennott and Eli Roth, there’s also Hank Azaria and Jane Adams and Hollywood scion Dan Levy. (A lot of nepo babies are involved with this production.) Da’Vine Joy Randolph from High Fidelity (the Hulu series, not the movie) steals a few scenes, and Troye Sivan, a child actor before he was a niche pop star, actually disappears into his creative-director role without imposing his persona. (Moses Sumney, the other big-deal musician in the cast, hasn’t had much to do yet, but he’s overqualified for his hot-guy-in-the-club role.)
Through it all, though, the would-be idol a the center of The Idol is one big blank. In the first shot of the series, Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn, posing for her album-cover photos, conjures different emotions at will, and that’s supposed to be our evidence that she can manipulate the masses, that she’s got that pop-star magic about her. Instead, she just comes off as a gifted model, which is something that Depp has already been. But she doesn’t seem to care about her new song, her upcoming tour, her Vanity Fair cover, or her single that’s about to come out. (The song itself is called “World Class Sinner,” and it sounds like a Weeknd deep cut that would maybe appear as a special-edition bonus track.) Maybe that’s the point. Jocelyn is detached from her own stardom and persona. She’s being manipulated, and she knows it. But pop stars are compelling figures, almost by definition. Thus far, Jocelyn is just not.
Jocelyn herself is adrift — mourning the death of her mother and not excited about her new music. After her busy morning, she jets off to a Los Angeles club, and that’s where she meets the Weeknd, who’s wearing a terrible wig and who seems to be trying to emulate Luis Guzmán in Boogie Nights, if that character was demonic rather than endearing. The Weeknd’s Tedros is apparently about to emerge as a shadowy cult leader, and he’s said that he modeled the character on Dracula. Right now, though, he’s a pretender — a guy who has to practice his opening lines and who’s clearly turned on by proximity to fame.
Do people care about the Weeknd’s persona? I’ve always wondered this. He makes great music, and he has a clear character — the soulful and regretful hedonist who always seems overcome by his own murky sex-and-drugs lifestyle. But when he tries to get artsy with that character — the interconnected music videos, the willfully weird Super Bowl performance — I always get the sense that people are willing to tolerate the conceptual stuff to get to the music. Thus far, The Idol is all conceptual stuff, very little music. That might be a problem.
Lately, Abel Tesfaye been talking about how he wants to do away with the Weeknd, his longtime alter-ego. In the credits of the The Idol, he appears as Abel Tesfaye, not as the Weeknd. But the Weeknd has bangers. I care about those bangers, so I care about the Weeknd. Right now, I don’t see much reason to care about Abel Tesfaye — or, for that matter, about Tedros.
When Tesfaye made his screen debut, playing his own younger self in Uncut Gems, his most memorable scene was an attempted hookup in a nightclub bathroom. On last night’s episode, Tesfaye’s most memorable scene was an attempted hookup in a nightclub stairwell, so he’s really showing his range here. Tedros’ most relatable and believable quality is that he believes in the greatness of pop stardom. When Jocelyn says that “pop music is just superficial” — something that I don’t believe any actual pop star would ever say, even in private — Tedros objects: “Pop music is like the ultimate Trojan horse. You get people to dance, you get people to sing along, to feel whatever you want. Shit’s powerful.” It is! He’s right!
When we first see Tedros, he’s making a pseudo-religious nightclub sermon while a DJ plays Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” (This show is not subtle.) Later on, Tedros rhapsodizes about Prince and Donna Summer. But he doesn’t have anything to say about those artists beyond the idea that Donna Summer sounds like she likes to fuck. That speech leads up to the big finale, where he gets into choking and knifeplay with Jocelyn.
The “torture porn” aspects of The Idol, at least thus far, have been just as overstated as you’d expect. Sam Levinson loves to show naked starlets, and Lily-Rose Depp shows as much skin as Sydney Sweeney on any random Euphoria episode. Her nudity becomes a plot point when a record-label intimacy coordinator objects to Jocelyn’s topless photos and Hank Azaria’s character has the guy locked in a bathroom — one of those moments where Sam Levinson can’t help but leave himself all over the screen. (Another: Jane Adams’ whole spiel about how mental illness is sexy.)
The big BDSM finale is supposed to be shocking. It’s not. Jocelyn’s scandalous photos are at least a funny new wrinkle to an old pop-star narrative. Most of the sex stuff, however, is rote and mechanical, and I can’t even tell if it’s supposed to be hot. But Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye clearly have big ideas about sex and seduction and stardom and mass communication. At this point, those ideas don’t seem to be anything new. The first episode of The Idol is reasonably entertaining smut, and that stuff has a place in the world. But The Idol is on Sunday-night HBO, a week after both Succession and Barry finished their runs. A show like this has big expectations, and it’s nowhere near matching them.
When Jocelyn invites Tedros over to her mansion, she tells him why she’s letting him in: “When you’re famous, everyone lies to you.” She’s right, and this show proves it. If anyone was willing to say “no” to the Weeknd at any point, then The Idol would not exist.