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'The Idol' Goes Down as HBO's All-Time Worst Series*

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 3, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 3, 2023 |


There is nothing that could possibly prepare anyone for how awful the ending to Max’s The Idol is. If the first four episodes were the Hindenburg, the finale is the Titanic, a bellyflop from 90 feet in the air that smacks water so hard that it breaks our cringe bone. Abel Tesfaye goes full Tommy Wiseau, overly emoting and sweaty, trying desperately to chew scenery when all that is available to gnaw on is old, moldy cardboard. The Idol finale is two packs of ass, smoked past their filters, an embarrassment for everyone involved, but mostly for HBO, which can add the worst show in the network’s history to David Zaslav’s pathetic run as CEO of the network.

Not that Zaslav is to blame, exactly: This is all on Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye, who hatched an idiotic idea that HBO couldn’t turn down because it involved the creator of Euphoria and one of the most popular recording artists of the last decade. Euphoria is not a particularly good show, but it has a helluva cast and is often provocative in just the right ways. However, the supporting cast — Rachel Sennott, Hank Azaria, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jane Addams — couldn’t salvage the terrible writing of The Idol and the abysmal acting of Tesfaye, not that a brilliant performance would have made much of a difference.

For those who bailed early, here are the first four episodes in a nutshell: Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is recovering from a nervous breakdown after her mother’s death and is trying to restart her career. She meets Tedros, a seedy, abusive man with a rattail who emotionally and sexually manipulates his way into Jocelyn’s life. He engages in some sadistic kinks, brings his cult into Jocelyn’s home, takes over her career, and attempts to alienate Jocelyn from her people. He also uses a hairbrush that Jocelyn’s mom used to beat her with to spank and humiliate Jocelyn in front of all of his cult members. All of this essentially culminates in last week’s episode where Jocelyn records a song while Tedros fingers her and everyone looks on in embarrassment. It’s worth noting, too, that Tedros’ cult members are all talented musicians.

Things began to take a slight turn in last week’s episode when Jocelyn — angry with Tedros because of his support for Dyanna, who had signed a record deal and taken Jocelyn’s single away from her — decided to sleep with her ex-boyfriend within earshot of Tedros, who did not take the betrayal well. In fact, Tedros arranged to frame the ex-boyfriend for rape and ruin his career.

When the finale picks up, Tedros is sweaty and drunk while Jocelyn has suddenly taken control of her entire situation. Jocelyn essentially makes Tedros’ cult members her own and separates Tedros from his cult. Jocelyn repeatedly tells Tedros to leave, and it’s not entirely clear why he won’t actually go away given Jocelyn’s resources and security detail. A drunken, rambling, pathetic Tedros basically sticks around solely so that Jocelyn can tell him to fuck off and leave every five minutes.

Meanwhile, the record label executive Andrew Finkelstein (Eli Roth) comes in because he has concerns about Jocelyn’s tour. Jocelyn’s team — Nikki, Chaim, Destiny — are also on hand to witness Jocelyn convince Finkelstein that she’s ready to go. This also entails showcasing Tedros’ other cult members, which Jocelyn plans to use as opening acts. Finkelstein, et al., are incredibly impressed by the other cult members, although there is little aside from the voice of Chloe (Suzanna Son) to be impressed by. (Isaak’s (Moses Sumney) performance is downright embarrassing).

Finally, Jocelyn comes out and gives a wild, sexed-up performance that involves a lot of writhing on the floor, whipping her hair around, and spanking herself, and afterward, Finkelstein repeatedly talks about how he came in his pants while making some weird, self-deprecating Jewish jokes. Her entire team is enamored with Jocelyn and her cult members. Meanwhile, Chaim (Hank Azaria) tries to pay off Tedros so that he’ll go away forever. Tedros rejects his $500,000, so Chaim gives a story to Talia (Hari Nef) at Vanity Fair designed to completely destroy Tedros’ life. It works.

Cut to six weeks later, and Jocelyn is on her tour. She and the cult members are a huge sensation. Tedros is thought to be out of their lives, and Finkelstein, Nikki, and Chaim are thrilled that they got rid of Tedros and are celebrating and bragging about it from the audience like ’80s movie villains. But then, Jocelyn tells the audience that she wants to bring out the love of her life, the man who pulled her out of her darkest time. A sheepish Tedros walks out with his tail between his legs. Jocelyn tells him she missed him and kisses him. “You’re mine forever,” she tells him. “Now go stand in the corner.” Jocelyn then bathes in the adoration of the crowd.

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The implication in this final scene is that this has been a setup from the beginning. Jocelyn has essentially been in control the entire time. She used Tedros — manipulated him into manipulating her — to serve her own professional interests. Jocelyn even made up the story about being beaten with her mother’s hairbrush so that Tedros would beat her with it, inspiring her to write better songs. I am not sure what the appropriate analogy for this is, but it’s like paying someone to steal from you to collect the insurance money, but also convincing the robber that it was his idea to sexually assault and humiliate you to make the robbery look authentic, and then afterward, marrying the robber who has been emasculated after realizing that the sexual assault and humiliation was her idea all along.

The point is, someone — Abel Tesfaye or Sam Levinson — thought this was a clever idea. Basically, it’s like Abel Tesfaye said, “What if a woman staged her own rape so that she could use it for professional clout?” and Levinson was like, “Whoa! That’s deep, man! It’s like what if the submissive was the dominant all along, and not even the dominant knew?” We should make a show about that, and hire Johnny Depp’s daughter, and we could get away with all this porny, male-gaze nonsense because secretly it’s revealed to be female empowerment. Let’s hire a woman to direct it all to bury the misogyny beneath a layer of plausible deniability, but then fire her because she buried it too deep! And then make HBO pony up $100 million so that we can hang out with cool people in your house!”

John from Cincinnati can finally give up the mantle of HBO’s all-time worst series. The Idol takes the crown, and it’s not even close.

Additional Notes

— After appearing as Jocelyn’s publicist in the pilot, Dan Levy never returned. The scene in which he offered Jocelyn a Rolling Stone profile that went viral a month before the release of The Idol never even appeared on the show. Wow. I assume that the rest of Dan Levy’s footage is buried somewhere along with Anne Heche’s.

— I’m not sure, but I think the implication is that Jocelyn slept with her ex-boyfriend, knowing that Tedros would ruin his career by framing him for rape as revenge because the photo of Jocelyn with ejaculate on her face came from a hack into the ex’s phone.

— If you were watching with subtitles on, you might have noticed in the finale especially that during the exchange between Nikki Katz and Andre Finkelstein, we’d often see references to “Nikki” and “Fink,” as in, Nikki Finke.

— Let me get this straight: Chaim went to the Vanity Fair reporter, Talia, and said, “Instead of running that profile on world-famous musician Jocelyn that you’ve been working on for weeks, I’ve got a better story for you about a scuzzy guy no one has ever heard of,” and Talia was like, “OK!”

(* excludes the unscripted, arrogantly idiotic Real Time with Bill Maher)