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So how bad is The Idol, really?
Plus: Black Mirror, a heartbreaking freediving documentary, and the album of the summer
Following the critical ‘narrative’ on the Idol, the controversial new HBO show starring Lily Rose Depp as unravelling pop star Jocelyn, co-created by Sam Levinson and musician The Weeknd, you might reasonably think the show to be HBO’s biggest mistake yet.
There have been reams of thinkpieces about The Idol’s fetishisation of trauma and abuse, the sordid ‘male gaze’ that commands everything from the sex to the clothes Depp wears, the Weeknd’s mortifying acting debut, and its terrible script. The reviews have annihilated it – The Telegraph gave it one star, The Guardian two, GQ declared its episode two sex scene as “the worst in history”.
On Twitter, former fans of the Weeknd – lecherous nightclub owner Tedros, who grooms pop star Jocelyn into a cult – are declaring they can ‘never play his music in the same way again’, Lily Rose Depp fans are strategising career rehab, while some have called for a boycott of the show, warning anyone that tries to watch it that they are “part of the problem”.
And yet the premiere was watched by 3.6 million viewers in its first week – surpassing Euphoria (3.3m) and White Lotus (3m). What’s particularly interesting is that many of these streams have been since the premiere night, which was just 913,000, suggesting that viewers have gravitated towards the show despite the outraged and damning critical reception. Or is it because of it?
And for all the calls of a boycott, I noticed that when the third episode dropped on Sunday, The Idol remained trending. The tweets roughly fall into two camps: “The Idol has got to be the most hypocritical misogynistic male fantasy bullshit I have ever seen”, and, “why can’t I stop watching this crap?”. Although really they’re in the same camp – both are watching it. Or rather, ‘hate-watching’ it.
Hate-watching was a term that sprung up in 2012, after Emily Nussbaum used it in a review of the much-derided show about a songwriting duo, Smash, arguing that “because it was bad in a truly spectacular way—you could learn something from it”.
Since then, hate-watching has become less noble. I don’t know how much ‘learning’ was gleaned from hate-watching Emily in Paris, for instance. I just think the show is visual fast food for anyone drained from an 11-hour working day or slumped in hangover hell.
With other shows since, hate-watching feels less a constructive endeavour than wanting to join a juicy, viral and pseudo-intellectual conversation in which, for a moment, anyone online can position themselves superior to some of Hollywood’s most successful actors, writers or directors.
To a degree, this happened with Euphoria, another Sam Levinson creation, which was also criticised for glamourising trauma and a dysfunctional lifestyle, its glossy visuals and moody soundtrack adding a sheen to its darkest moments. Every week Twitter would fizz with excited revulsion at the ‘sick’ and ‘pornographic’ show, with calls to ‘lock Sam Levinson up’, and yet it was HBO’s most successful show after Game of Thrones.
As media studies professor Joli Joleen told the BBC in 2017 when they ran a piece on the concept of hate-watching, “Today’s media culture is one of constant mockery and cynicism and evaluation. Social media has made us all creators, in a sense, so we feel like we have more of a right to be snotty about someone not doing it as well as we think they should. We feel more entitled to judge and critique.”
When it comes to the Idol, I’d love to know how many of those outraged Gen Zers who called for a boycott are secretly hate-watching via a pirated stream so as not to contribute to HBO’s official ratings.
My excuse for watching the Idol is that I have to, for work, obviously. And yet the truth is I’d be watching it anyway. The bad press was simply too alluring. As Sam Levinson himself said after reading the eviscerating Rolling Stone expose that ran before the Idol aired, which I wrote about here, “I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer”.
Admittedly, the Idol is bad. The Weeknd is one of the worst actors I have ever seen in a major show, and yes, parts of the script do feel like they’ve been written by a 21-year-old boy with a porn addiction who thinks that women wear beaded thongs and cut-out leotards when they’re taking the bins out. Much of the time I can’t tell whether the script is meant to be subversive, a comedy, or whether the Weeknd and Levinson are just plain old creeps.
Almost nothing feels credible, from the journalist given the most preposterous amount of access even while chaos rumbles and Jocelyn’s useless entourage of caricatured music execs, to Jocelyn falling in love with Tedros in the first place. The third episode – with its gratuitous violent sex and perverted domestic abuse – I found truly sickening.
And yet… the theme of the exploited pop star is a fascinating one. The visuals – all sun-drenched Los Angeles property porn, shot at The Weeknd’s own $70m Bel Air mansion – are a soothing balm for a tired mind. And Depp is a good actor, lifting certain scenes well out of the gutter, such as when she shoots a music video in episode two, her insecurities prompting a sadistic perfectionism that sees her demand take after take until she collapses with bloodied feet on the stage. And, while highly disturbing, I found it hard to look away during episode three’s tense dinner scene, when Tedros forces Jocelyn to reveal her mother’s abusive habits in front of the group, and encourages her to admit the abuse motivated her career. (Though what happens after is needlessly, emptily nasty.)
Looking past the trending tweets and media speel, the Idol does have fans. Its sub-Reddits are filled with people defending the show: it’s entertaining, it’s gripping, it looks amazing. Some of them, it seems, are defending it on principle, lambasting “media groupthink”, while others have described the way Tedros grooms a vulnerable young woman as highly accurate. (Though there is also a very interesting post from a cult survivor who says its total bullshit.)
I’m also not convinced shows like the Idol really are as dangerously influential as some make it out to be. The visuals may be beguiling and Jocelyn may look sexy, but she is a pitiable, miserable figure that I would be surprised if many idolised. With Euphoria, I would imagine its most significant influence on teenage girls has been its diamante face gems.
Who knows what the legacy of the Idol will be. It only has two more episodes left, and was originally meant to be just a limited series, but I suspect its ratings may prompt HBO to reconsider. It will be a cruel fact to stomach if the Idol becomes a bigger hit than Succession, the brilliant show only journalists were watching.
On Tuesday The Weeknd said he hoped the Idol would prove “educational” because “this is what comes with being incredibly famous, you’re surrounded by people who you’re not sure what their true intentions are”. I doubt the show will have this effect – Jocelyn feels like a fantasy pop star from another era, and too untethered to the real world to leave a lasting impression. (Much more realistic and stirring in its depiction of fame and addiction is recent drama Daisy Jones and the Six).
And with regards Tedros, he is a pantomime villain – the most terrifying and evil people in today’s music business are nothing like him.
This week in links
I’ve been interviewing Alastair Campbell for my celebrity culture podcast Straight Up. I’d worked with Alastair while at GQ but had only met him once, briefly, while at a party, and he can be a little scary on TV and on Twitter, so I didn’t know what to expect when he turned up to the Dartmouth Arms to talk about his remarkable second wind of fame as one half of the chart-topping podcast the Rest is Politics. But actually he was very charming and very funny, revealing his most surreal – and nightmarish – celebrity encounters, what he makes of celebrity politicians, and his best party trick. Have a listen.
I’ve been reading this very entertaining Vanity Fair profile of OG scammer and Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway, who scammed her way into Cambridge University and then into a $500,000 book deal with Flatiron. When she got outed as a fraud by fellow student Natalie Beach, who wrote about their nightmarish friendship for The Cut in their most-read piece of 2019, she had to start modelling on OnlyFans to pay back her advance. But, finally, she has a book, Scammer, out now. Like all good profiles, Lili Anolik takes the reader in an unexpected direction, revealing that by profiling Calloway, she has unwittingly become one of Calloway’s collaborators.
This one-star review of EL James’s new novel The Missus by my colleague Anita Singh is also very funny.
I’ve been watching The Deepest Breath, a fascinating, gut-wrenching documentary about Italian, record-breaking freediver Alessia Zecchini, whose safety diver and lover Stephen Keenan died saving her while she was diving the Blue Hole in the Red Sea, which has the highest number of fatalities of any other diving site in the world. Footage of some of Alessia’s dives are mind-boggling, particularly when you see what happens to her body as she pushes it to extremes underwater, from frequent blackouts that require CPR to literal eye-rolling spasms.
I can’t stop thinking about one disturbing episode from the anthology season of Black Mirror, Joan is Awful, which follows a deeply flawed woman whose life is turned into a streaming hit without her consent. Or rather, without her knowledge, because she had consented when she absent-mindedly clicked ‘agree’ to the hundreds of pages of terms of conditions from ‘Streamberry’ (a thinly veiled Netflix).
Stranger yet, she is played by Salma Hayek, but not really – it’s an AI-generated version of Salma Hayek, who no longer has any control over her image either. The episode’s director Ally Pankiw said that the episode is a comment on deep fakes and our obsession with content creation, as well as “consent and how we consume women and pop culture”, which also made me think about the compromising elements of some personal journalism.
Hats off to Netflix for allowing themselves to be parodied so closely that even their chief content officer Bela Bajaria is brilliantly spoofed by Leila Farzad.
Less good, however, are some of the anthology’s other episodes, including Mazey Day, about a celebrity actor hunted by paparazzi, which felt lazily written. I almost turned it off after one of my biggest screen peeves popped up: drunk, emotionally unhinged women breaking their wine glass, haphazardly picking up the shards, and… ow!!! Almost as annoying as couples slow-mo dancing without music.
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