Can HBO’s ‘The Idol’ Bring Back ’80s Sleaze?
A slick executive drives a cherry red convertible.
A nightclub owner carries a coke spoon and wears his hair in a rat tail.
A troubled pop star masturbates while choking herself.
Those images might have come from an erotic thriller made by Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven or Adrian Lyne, directors who were prominent in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to movies like “Body Double” (Mr. De Palma), “Basic Instinct” (Mr. Verhoeven) and “9 ½ Weeks” (Mr. Lyne).
But those scenes were actually part of “The Idol,” the HBO series that made its debut on Sunday with the apparent intention of reviving an all but dead genre.
Filled with close-up shots of luxury goods and body parts, “The Idol” also recalled the works of lesser filmmakers whose R-rated creations populated the late-night lineups of HBO and its rivals long before the advent of prestige television.
It was a style that died out over the years — the death blow might have been Mr. Verhoeven’s infamous “Showgirls,” an expensive 1995 flop — and seemed highly unlikely to make a return to the cultural stage amid the #MeToo movement.
As Karina Longworth, the creator of the film-history podcast “You Must Remember This,” recently observed, today’s films are so devoid of steamy sex scenes that they “would pass the sexual standard set by the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1930s.”
The old aesthetic was on full display in the first moments of “The Idol,” a series created by Sam Levinson, Abel Tesfaye (known as the Weeknd) and Reza Fahim, three men who came of age when flipping through cable channels late at night was a frequent pastime for adolescent boys.
The first episode begins with the pop star Jocelyn, played by Lily-Rose Depp, baring her breasts during a photo shoot as a team of handlers, crew members and an ineffectual intimacy coordinator look on.
Later, Ms. Depp’s character smokes in a sauna, rides in the back of a Rolls-Royce convertible and rubs up against a man she has just met (a club owner portrayed by Mr. Tesfaye) on a dance floor bathed in smoky red light. There will be no flannel PJs for Joss; a pair of wake-up scenes make it clear to viewers that she sleeps in a thong.
It isn’t only the show’s gratuitous nudity that harks back to Mr. Lyne and company, but the overall look and mood, which recall a louche glamour from the time of boxy Armani suits and cocaine nights. A main setting is a $70 million mansion in Bel Air that looks like something out of Mr. De Palma’s “Scarface” but is in fact Mr. Tesfaye’s real-life home.
A number of young viewers have said they find sex scenes embarrassing, but Mr. Levinson, who created the HBO drama “Euphoria,” and his fellow producers have made no secret of their desire to pay homage to the heyday of Cinemax (when it had the nickname Skinemax).
A wink to viewers comes when Joss, in the darkness of her private screening room, watches “Basic Instinct.” And then there is the pulsating score, which seems to conjure Tangerine Dream, the German electronic group who scored the sex scene on a train in “Risky Business.” In another nod to the show’s influences, the cast includes Elizabeth Berkley, the star of “Showgirls.”
While it may seem like an outlier, “The Idol” has seemingly tapped into a cultural moment that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago: Ms. Longworth recently devoted a season of her film-history podcast to the “Erotic ’80s”; no less a tastemaker than the Criterion Channel has recently presented a series on erotic thrillers from the same time period; and last month in Los Angeles, the American Cinematheque held a screening of “Basic Instinct.”
“The Idol” also has a close competitor in the world of streaming: “Fatal Attraction,” a 1987 hit for Mr. Lyne, has been rebooted as a series on Paramount+.
Stephanie Zacharek, the film critic for Time, suggested that the return of such fare may have arisen from the yearslong glut of comic book movies, along with the lack of a certain kind of R-rated film that was once all the rage for adult viewers.
“In the ’80s, that’s almost all there was in the multiplex,” Ms. Zacharek said. “Grown-ups went to see those movies. Now we don’t even have that many movies for grown-ups, period.”
Ms. Zacharek slammed “The Idol” in her review and in a phone interview — “It feels like it was made by someone who has never had sex,” she said — but she said she was a fan of “Body Double” (and even “Showgirls”) and laments the disappearance of that kind of thing.
“I always enjoyed those films, even when I thought they were sexist or ridiculous,” Ms. Zacharek said. “They do have a certain element of glamour to them.”
It is a distinct possibility that the idea of reviving this particular genre may appeal more to Mr. Levinson and his colleagues than audiences and critics.
After a two-decade absence from big-budget productions, Mr. Lyne attempted a comeback last year with “Deep Water,” an erotic thriller starring Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck. Mr. Levinson was one of the film’s writers.
“Deep Water,” which streamed on Hulu upon its release, was never shown in theaters. It drew a 36 percent approval score from critics and a 24 percent audience score on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
“The Idol” has fared both better and worse: A mere 24 percent of critics have given it a thumbs-up, and 63 percent of audience members have weighed in favorably.
Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details. @skurutz
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