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Another Problem With HBO’s ‘Idol’-atry

HBO just trotted out The Idol, the newest brainchild (if you can call it that) of creator Sam Levinson. The show has been touted by Rolling Stone as a “darker, crazier and more risqué version of Levinson’s smash-hit Euphoria.” And that HBO show was already one of the tawdriest, most controversial and most problematic shows on television.

Plugged In opted to take a pass on The Idol. While we did review Euphoria, we did so because it was targeted directly at (and is immensely popular with) teens. We thought we could add something to the conversation—offering a little Christ-centered perspective on this incredibly difficult show.

But The Idol? We at Plugged In didn’t feel like we had a lot to add. While Levinson’s work always attracts younger viewers, the characters here aren’t teenagers. And the show’s content issues have been so widely reported that it seemed unnecessary for us to subject our own reviewers’ eyes to it.

Turns out, we weren’t missing much.

The initial mainstream reviews for The Idol are in, and the show is just as salacious and as hideous as early reports led us to believe. Given Levinson’s history, that’s practically a given. And the reports of how exploitative the show feels onscreen (and how exploitative it might’ve been in its making) are legion.

But critics noted something else rather interesting: The Idol, for all its skin, is really, really dull.

The Idol Isn’t Good Enough to be Shocking” Defector tells us in a headline. Rolling Stone declared it “Nasty, brutish, [feels] much longer than it is, and way, way worse than you’d have anticipated.” USA Today’s review says that The Idol is “sexist, gratuitous, exploitative … and achingly boring.” Writes Kelly Lawler:

The Idol … wants to shock, titillate and provoke you. It uses nudity, profanity, drugs, semen, sadism, masochism, mental illness and excessive cigarette smoking in its barefaced effort to seem cool and subversive. Based on Sunday’s premiere, it’s exceptionally clear that Idol is not cool, nor is it subversive. It is a hopeless try-hard, and worse, it’s painfully dull.”

None of that seems to be bothering Levinson, who seems to lap up controversy like Nosferatu laps blood. When the Rolling Stone labeled the show “torture porn,” the creator turned to his wife and said (according to the Los Angeles Times), “I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.”

Certainly, the controversy will drive the curious to check The Idol out. And, of course, the show’s notoriety may have a particular pull for youth. With HBO available in more than 96 million homes (between its own subscriptions and those using the streaming service Max), you know that countless curious teens will check out Levinson’s latest skinfest.

But the show, honestly, points to something deeper. It illustrates something about storytelling, sin and ourselves.

Temptations are all around us. They lure us into the soul’s dark alleys, pull us into the shadows. A lot of those sins are sexual ones: Sex is one of our species’ deepest, most primal drives—and, as such, it serves as one of the easiest and most powerful levers to pry us away from God and His design for us.

But while we may crave such things, we have a deeper yearning yet. We long for something deeper, more tangible, more real. We desire something more than sex. We desire meaning.

Stories—well-told stories, at least—can give us a hint of that meaning. They can communicate something to us about ourselves and our world.

But where do we find our ultimate meaning? The only thing that can truly scratch that overpowering itch? God, of course. It’s only through Him that we become ourselves. That we realize our purpose.

The Idol is well named. It both symbolizes and embodies elements that draw our attention away from God and to the sensuous, the superficial. Intended as a satire on exploitative celebrity, it instead (according to many reviewers) revels in it. The show pretends to tear down our culture’s own Baal but erects its own altar instead.

But just as ancient Israelites learned to their peril and pain, such manmade gods do nothing to save us, do nothing to help us. They distract us, perhaps. But nothing more, nothing better.

The Idol prostrates itself before the hand-hewn god of sex, it worships skin. But in the end, it unintentionally reveals something more: Skin is just skin deep. And while the Sam Levinsons of the world may forget and ignore that we go deeper, we remember.

And perhaps when our idols fail to satisfy, we’ll turn to the only One who can.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

4 Responses

  1. – Here’s another example of adult content not being inherently good or bad. The explicit elements of a show like The Idol can be used in the context of an engaging and thoughtful story or, as in this case, they can just be used to titillate and generate publicity. Discerning viewers should evaluate the artistic merit of a movie or show, not just the amount of skin and profanity.

    1. -That’s pretty much how I felt about what I saw of Euphoria – extremely unpleasant presentation, but the subject matter was worth talking about. Tactfully. (The show sometimes looked like it was trying to glamorize things that it was aware were unhealthy.)

    2. -I agree with you even as we both think this show sounds like it didn’t make half that effort. But I do think more shows and movies should engage that kind of content in a respectful way since part of our Christian witness depends on being willing to admit what is going on in the world (and oftentimes even in the church).

  2. – I could hardly imagine a show being more excessive than Euphoria — while I found what little of it I saw extremely difficult to watch, I had a lot of empathy for its characters even as they desperately needed positive role models and extracurricular activities (it made me think of one of those ’80s “kids run around” movies if played realistically and with all of the negative aspects heavily accentuated). One of the biggest issues I had with the show was that I wasn’t sure if it was trying to generate sympathy for its characters or invite the audience to rejoice in what is being shown on screen—despite the horrific subject matter, to say nothing of these actors and actresses pretending to be teenagers (I literally don’t know how the show’s writers didn’t get arrested for some of the things they depicted, even in simulation). But I hadn’t even heard of ‘The Idol’ until I started seeing the massive negative reviews pour in on Rotten Tomatoes.

    I do think there’s room to depict a deeply fallen world, while still doing so tactfully. I think “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks did a phenomenal job of this, telling a sometimes painful-to-watch story about ways that the world can be cruel and yet also maintaining a very clear, and clearly pious, emotional and moral compass.