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‘The Idol’ receives backlash from critics: “The stuff of a toxic man’s fantasy”

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The first two episodes of HBO’s The Idol have sparked controversy among critics, with many criticising the overtly sexual nature of the series.

The episodes were shown for the first time at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (May 22), making it the first show to have its official debut at the prestigious cinema event.

It stars both Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd — who is working under his real name Abel Tesfaye — and follows the story of a world-famous pop star (Depp), whose relationship with sleazy mentor (Tesfaye) highlights the dark underbelly of the showbiz world.


Following the first two episodes of the long-awaited series, the show — which is directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson — received a five-minute standing ovation from the audience. Critics, however, have taken a different approach – with many being quick to criticise the series for its explicit content and “regressive” narrative.

A review by Variety proclaimed the series to play “like a sordid male fantasy” which “perpetuates the myth that pop stars are corporate puppets with no say in their own image-making”. It also highlighted the highly-controversial nature of the show, which it later described as including “revenge porn photos of bodily fluids on Depp’s face, masturbation with ice cubes, nightclub-owning scam artists and vile Hollywood sycophants”.

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A similar view was shown by Lovia Gyarkye of The Hollywood Reporter, who described the first two episodes as being “more regressive than transgressive”.

“It’s always a bit suspicious when shows try to market themselves as edgy,” wrote Gyarkye. “What are they trying to prove? This obvious effort to make The Idol appear controversial took an ironic turn. The show, initially billed as an exploration of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the music industry, became what it tried to satirise.”

“Instead of subtly skewering the misogynistic and predatory nature of the business, The Idol became a forbidden love story — the stuff of a toxic man’s fantasy,” she added.


The Los Angeles Times review agreed, striking comparisons between the nature of The Idol to that seen in another Levinson-created series. “A similar penchant for graphic sex, cute clothes and self-destruction [to Euphoria],” the review read. “With several sex scenes that are graphic (especially aurally) even by HBO standards, the term ‘porn’ is not inaccurate, though it’s tough to imagine anyone would consider any of the action erotic when it is so ham-fisted.”

Not all critics were as quick to condemn the show, however. In a review by Deadline, Damon Wise described the series as “riveting” and “highly sexualised performance”, which is “grounded and often vulnerable, discomfortingly addressing the fine lines between porn and art”. He also described it as highlighting the “power and exploitation that have faced young women in the music industry for years”.

The Weeknd in the trailer for 'The Idol'. Source: YouTube
The Weeknd in the trailer for ‘The Idol’. Source: YouTube

The Idol premieres Sunday June 4 on HBO.

Before the debut of the first two episodes at Cannes, the series sparked controversy once again, following rumours of numerous expensive reshoots and creative clashes — many of which surrounding Tesfaye.

The musician and actor discussed the controversy earlier this month (May 3), saying: “Film and TV is a new creative muscle for me… I don’t release my music until I think it is great. Why would this be any different?”

He also added: “I realised that I need to know that I’ve made the best version of whatever I’m making. It was a challenge to redo The Idol, and, in truth, I sacrificed my health and home to make it work. So, let’s say it comes out and it’s fucking horrible. I still know I did my absolute best.”

Tesfaye also responded to a report alleging that The Idol is “a shitshow”. The comments came following a report by Rolling Stone, which saw 13 anonymous sources from the show’s cast and crew spoke on the production of the anticipated series, and even described it as “torture porn”.

Tesfaye simply responded to the report with a tweet, showing a clip of Tesfaye’s and Depp’s characters shutting down a cover story pitch from the magazine, arguing that it’s “irrelevant”. He also tagged the publication in his tweet with a question: “did we upset you?”

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