From the very beginning, everything I’d heard about The Idol had been against my will. The snippets of information about the plot, characterizations, and behind-the-scenes changes alone went beyond red flags and delved straight into blaring scarlet alarm territory.
I’m no prude when it comes to TV — I consider Skins and Euphoria to be some of the best TV series of all time — so when I sat down to watch the first episode of The Idol, I did so with an open mind. Well, as open-minded as one can be after early reviews of the drama series revealed that the lead is referred to at one point as a “human cum sock.”
Even after watching The Idol’s pilot episode, I’m still not 100% on what the actual premise is meant to be. But it’s meant to follow Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn as the titular “idol,” with the pop singer trying to rebuild her career after the death of her mother triggered a nervous breakdown. Cue plenty of sex, drugs, and debauchery, which only increases after she gets mixed up with the sleazy Tedros (who is played by The Weeknd/Abel Tesfaye).
For most of the 54-minute runtime of episode 1, Jocelyn is in some kind of state of undress. As she lounges around chain smoking in a silken gown, hospital bracelet, and nothing else, a member of her entourage insists that “mental illness is sexy.” If the writers gave any depth to Jocelyn’s mental health besides a sweeping mention of a breakdown, this line might have landed as satire. But I have a bad feeling that it wasn’t meant to be ironic.
So much of the filming is dedicated to capturing Jocelyn in the most sexually-charged way possible; you’re left with no doubt that it’s a show almost entirely catered to the male gaze. Nudity is an important facet in some storytelling — especially when we’re talking about sexual exploitation in particular — but when said nudity is filmed in a way that glamorizes and sexualizes the subject, can it still be perceived as ‘commentary’ on exploitation? Or has it become the very thing it purports to satirize?
In dialogue, the writing and directing team go to great lengths to assure the audience they know exactly what they’re doing. It’s how we end up with vom-worthy lines like “Are you romanticizing mental illness? Absolutely.”
But being self-aware of the harmful way you convey your subject doesn’t make it any less damaging. Feel free to argue that Tedros asphyxiating Jocelyn in her own robe served some purpose to the plot, but what was the context-less masturbation scene if not an excuse to sexualize Lily Rose-Depp to viewers? It’s also worth noting how for all the women in various states of undress shown throughout the episode, every male character’s clothes remained suspiciously intact: even in sex scenes.
If nudity and sexuality are that important in telling a story, they should apply to all characters — not just the women who seductively pout to the camera.
But what of the infamous “human cum sock?” Well, as if they couldn’t objectify Jocelyn any further, the premise of The Idol’s debut episode centers around her entourage trying to prevent her from discovering an explicit photo had leaked.
Revenge porn has been in the public consciousness a lot lately, from the rise of non-consensual deepfake porn to the high-profile Stephen Bear case in the UK. If The Idol truly set out to say something profound about the treatment of women in the public eye, they may have treated this subject with a degree of the respect it deserves.
Instead, it becomes the center of crude jokes and is repeatedly downplayed by everyone in the episodes. But not without a consistent undercurrent of victim-blaming. And when I say “undercurrent,” I mean Dan Levy’s character positing Jocelyn as a “victim” in this scenario is literally framed as a punchline.
“But it is revenge porn,” one member of Jocelyn’s entourage pleads. “Yes, if we say it is,” another smirks. This dismissive attitude toward revenge porn could be taken as an indication of how corrupt the people Jocelyn surrounds herself with are. Still, it’s part of a broader, more worrying pattern in the episode where everyone concerned for Jocelyn’s welfare is framed as some kind of villain.
As Jane Adams’ Nikki demands Jocelyn’s revenge porn is spun to make her look like “some kind of fucking feminist hero,” the venom is all too apparent. Tedros might be framed as the more obvious bad guy of the series (dark and looming music starts playing every time he appears on-screen), but in The Idol, the true villain is feminism.
The audience is encouraged to hate the intimacy coordinator on-hand during Jocelyn’s photoshoot because he commits the cardinal sin of trying to safeguard her. Just look at him, suggesting Jocelyn might feel pressured to show her nipples. What a loser, right?
Xander, another member of Jocelyn’s team, is later berated as one of those “college internet people” for suggesting that someone recovering from a nervous breakdown is too vulnerable to do a nude photoshoot. As others yell at him for trying to “cockblock America,” any pretense of irony or multi-faceted satire falls apart entirely.
The Idol isn’t catered toward people who actually care about women or how the entertainment industry exploits them. It’s catered towards those who relish in the exploiting. As it swings between being reminiscent of porn, angsty Lana Del Rey Tumblr posts, and anti-SJW YouTube videos, guess how many women were involved in writing and directing The Idol? Zero.
For more on the thriller series, check out our guide to The Idol release schedule. Or, learn more about Sam Levinson’s work in our guides to the Euphoria characters and the Euphoria season 3 release date. You can also check out Emma-Jane Bett’s feature on how Succession holds a mirror to sexist family dynamics for more feminist TV takes.