Warning: This article contains spoilers for episode 3 of The Idol.
The Idol is now three episodes into its six-episode arc, and things aren’t looking much better than they did in episode one. The series, which premiered its first two episodes at Cannes Film Festival, has been critically panned, with most of the criticism aimed at the cringe-inducing sex scenes.
HBO isn’t a stranger to graphic, provocative scenes. After all, this is the home of Sex and The City, Euphoria (also created by The Idol creator Sam Levinson) and Game of Thrones. Nudity and sex are to be expected, and The Idol is offering more than enough of it.
The Idol was already a controversial hit before it was screened at Cannes. Rolling Stone’s investigation earlier this year chronicled the departure of original director Amy Seimetz and claimed co-creator Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, had requested rewrites after the show had adopted too much of a “female perspective”, whatever that means.
Still, The Idol was always going to be huge. After all, Tesfaye is a global artist with over 100 million monthly listeners on Spotify. He’s played the Super Bowl, he’s featured on film soundtracks, and he even popped up in Uncut Gems, but The Idol is his first proper foray into filmmaking and a completely different creative arena for him to compete in.
Unfortunately, it’s not working out very well for him.
It’s worth keeping in mind that we’ve only seen three episodes out of six. No one has seen the remaining three episodes, or if they have, they’re under strict embargos. Review screeners are only being made available at the time the show goes out, so reviews are scarce and very reactive in nature.
Episode 2, titled ‘Double Fantasy’, stirred up controversy last week over what was dubbed the worst sex scene in history by GQ Magazine. In it, Tesfaye’s character Tedros blindfolds pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) and engages in some pretty awkward dirty talk.
Tesfaye has defended the scene, saying we’re not supposed to find it sexy, but that was never the problem. The problem was, and still is, his performance. The Weeknd is a charismatic, unpredictable performer on stage, but Abel Tesfaye plays it safe on the small screen. Tesfaye has the magnetism of a wet cloth if we’re quite honest.
“Make that throat wet for me,” Tedros instructs Jocelyn during the scene. What does that even mean?! Let’s pretend that’s a reasonable sexual request for a minute. Tesfaye’s delivery here is excruciating. His voice is monotone, and Levinson frames his face in a tight closeup, so we really see the lack of emotion on his face.
The context of the scenes, and the entire show, is that Jocelyn is a young starlet facing a multitude of issues. She’s recovering from a breakdown brought on by the death of a loved one, she’s not connecting with her music and to top it all off, someone has just leaked an image of her with semen all over her face.
The first episode tries to paint Jocelyn as both a slut and someone in need of sexual saving. Tedros tells Jocelyn, whose new song is all about sex, that “if you’re going to sing a song called ‘I’m A Freak’, you should at least sing it like you know how to fuck,” as if she didn’t have a photo with cum on her face leaked out, prompting her to be called a “cum sock”. Much of The Idol focuses on the sexual relationship between Tedros and Jocelyn, who feels cared for by Tedros. It’s the hook, line and sinker in this twisted fairytale that thinks it’s much more profound than it is.
— Abel Tesfaye (@theweeknd) March 1, 2023
In episode 3, available now, things progress. Jocelyn is forced to open up about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, namely, being beaten with a flat hairbrush to the point of breaking skin. Tedros pushes Jocelyn to admit she’s afraid her creative rut is because her mother isn’t around anymore.
Jocelyn later walks up to Tedros with her hairbrush. The show cuts to her pained expression as Tedros presumably beats her. The episode ends with Jocelyn thanking Tedros for taking care of her. It’s an upsetting ending to the episode and the series as a whole still seems to be finding its footing. It wants to be trashy and sleazy, but the problem is that it’s a bit dull. The series revolves entirely around the troubling power and sexual dynamic between Tedros and Jocelyn.
This is a popular theme in Tesfaye’s music as well. Take one of his biggest hits, ‘I Feel It Coming’, which feels like it could have been made for The Idol. “You’ve been scared of love and what it did to you/You don’t have to run, I know what you’ve been through/Just a simple touch and it can set you free/We don’t have to rush when you’re alone with me,” The Weeknd purrs on the track.
Not to mention, one of The Weeknd’s earliest hits was ‘Earned It’, which featured on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The track (and the film) had millions of people fantasising about their own Christian Grey, someone who would take care of them and magically know how to sexually please them. Somehow, The Weeknd has mastered mainstream sensuality and eroticism, but Abel Tesfaye, the actor, seems oblivious as to how to perform it in front of the camera.
In ‘Often’, The Weeknd sings about making “that pussy pop”, and he sounds pretty earnest about it. Good for him and his lady friends! However, in the now-infamous sex scene in episode 2, Tesfaye can’t quite sell the line “Fuckin’ stretch that tiny little pussy”, which has now become a widely shared meme and the subject of much ridicule (quite rightfully, it’s just as awful as you’re imagining).
It’s this strange divide between The Weeknd, the performer, and Tesfaye, the actor that might prove The Idol’s biggest issue. Granted, The Idol is Tesfaye’s first acting gig, so we can give him some leeway with that, but such an intense, morally ambiguous role is a challenging role for any actor.
HBO recently addressed reports that The Idol wouldn’t return for another season. It’s still highly unlikely that Levinson and Tesfaye would return to make another season of The Idol, which currently sits at 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. ‘A Lesser Man’, a track heard in episode 3, performed by The Weeknd, hints that there is still more to Tedros than we’ve seen.
“I’m a lesser man, a lesser man/A lesser man than you think I am/You think you know but you have no idea/I’m a lesser man, you’re the best of them,” The Weeknd sings as Tedros takes Jocelyn shopping, only to be hit with a bout of child-like jealousy over a shop assistant doing his job and assisting Jocelyn in choosing overpriced designer garments. The episode surprisingly focuses on Tedros’ previously unseen insecurities, but it’s going to take a lot of work, and perhaps a miracle or two, for The Idol to redeem itself.
The Idol airs every Monday on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK.