good takes

A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Idol-Pilled

Let The Idol into your heart, and you could be having as much fun as these two. Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO

You’ve read the reviews: The Idol is “toxic” and “nauseating,” offering only “hollow, vacuous titillation.”

But what if that’s what makes it good?

As the Sam Levinson–Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye collaboration has been panned, slammed, and damned, a few bold voices have had the courage to stand in their truth and insist that, actually, The Idol is worth watching. Where others see a noxious display of celebrity ego, they see a sharp Hollywood satire. Where others see torture porn, they see black comedy. Where others see “World Class Sinner,” they see “World Class Sinner (Sex Noise Remix).”

Take-wise, these people are sitting on valuable property. According to my calculations, the Idol backlash will soon crest, which makes now the perfect time to invest in some backlash-to-the-backlash futures. Just think of the personal-branding opportunities! Being a proud Idol stan at the right moment could be nearly as big as being the first person in your social network to recommend Industry as a Succession substitute. (Still room for growth on that one, but act fast. It will be tapped out soon.)

Are you just a freak (yeah) who wants to join the pro-Idol bandwagon early? Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting Idol-pilled.

Step 1. Accept a certain level of self-regard in Sam Levinson’s writing.

Listen, no one is a bigger Sam Levinson skeptic than me. I found Assassination Nation overcooked and thought Malcolm & Marie was the most annoying movie of 2021. (As for Euphoria, I’ve only seen one episode, the Zendaya-in-the-diner one. It was okay.) Unlike seemingly every Euphoria fan on TikTok, I can’t speak to the man’s character — though if you believe reports, his seat-of-the-pants directing style is, at best, inconsiderate to his collaborators — but from what I’ve seen onscreen, he seems like a writer who’s awfully pleased with himself. The air of self-satisfaction that marks a Sam Levinson script is still evident on The Idol, so before you go all in, you’ve gotta decide for yourself how much you can handle. Just say it’s, uh, camp?

Step 2: Accept its retro-sleaze wavelength.

After The Idol premiered at Cannes, many critics slammed the show for attempting to have its cake and eat it too, rubbing viewers’ noses in lurid hedonism one moment then tut-tutting about industry exploitation the next. But in his review of the premiere for Decider, Sean T. Collins places the show in an artistic tradition stretching back to the 1980s: “Visually, sonically, thematically, locationally, in its use of comedy and nudity and perverse sex, this is an erotic thriller in the mode of the genre’s semi-satirists, Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven.” And in that genre, he argues, “you kind of can have your cake and eat it too with this stuff.” You can “‘let people like sex, drugs, and hot girls,’ while also making them uncomfortable with, and even making fun of them for, liking it.”

Other writers also made the Verhoeven comparison, in part because the premiere takes pains to include a scene where characters watch Basic Instinct. As Karina Longworth put it on You Must Remember This, the genius of Basic Instinct is that Verhoeven’s direction “can, depending on your point of view, lend gravitas to the bad script or subvert it. Or maybe both at once.” Many of the people who hate The Idol most loudly — including me, at first — seem to be taking it at face value. The true Idol fan embraces the slipperiness.

3. Accept that it’s funny.

A recent episode of The Watch got to the heart of the pro- versus anti-Idol debate. Chris Ryan, who has been banging the drum for the show so loudly he might as well be in a Günter Grass novel, argued that the show works best as a “darkly funny” backstage satire. (As a counterpoint, co-host Andy Greenwald dinged it for committing “the cardinal sin of erotic thrillers … it’s boring.” Different strokes!) But come on: The scene that opens the second episode, where Jocelyn debuts her sexy new remix, writhing around in broad daylight while everyone else sits there stone-faced? That’s funny. Every line reading that comes out of Rachel Sennott’s mouth? Gold. Hari Nef serving Vanity Fair pop-culture writer profile-doer? Perfect casting.

Sure, you may say, all that stuff works. But what about the other half of the show, the part with the Weeknd being a horny vampire? Who could watch that stuff without laughing? Well, what if I told you …

4. Accept that you’re supposed to think Tedros Tedros is a loser.

This one is the hardest to wrap your head around, because from the outside, The Idol seems like a quintessential celebrity vanity project. If you’re taking the show at face value, it’s hard not to turn up your nose at the Weeknd casting himself as a guy who fucks a pop star in a different, cooler way than she’s ever been fucked before. Groundbreaking.

But as Levinson and the Weeknd have pointed out in interviews, while this is how Tedros views himself, this is not necessarily how the show intends us to view him. We see him practicing his cheesy pickup lines in the mirror. We see Jocelyn make fun of his rattail. We see him talk absolute nonsense about how Jocelyn having a picture of Prince on her wall is some sort of kismet. “He’s pathetic,” the Weeknd has said. The sequence in episode two that British GQ dubbed “the worst sex scene in history” is only terrible if you think his porn-tastic dirty talk is supposed to be sexy. But what if it was basic, ninth-grade shit, because this is a basic, ninth-grade kind of guy?

Now, does the Weeknd have the acting chops and charisma to pull off such a layered performance, to make us see the schmuck inside Tedros at the same time we see why Jocelyn’s falling for him? Well — no, I don’t think so, which means this is where I must part ways with the Idol stans. But even if I’m not quite ready to jump in yet, I have to admit: They look like they’re having a lot of fun over there.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Idol-Pilled