The Strange Jewish Representation in HBO's 'The Idol' – Kveller
Skip to Content Skip to Footer


The Strange Jewish Representation in HBO’s ‘The Idol’

The new Sam Levinson show has a couple of Jewish characters that make me deeply uncomfortable.

Eli Roth in 'The Idol'

via Eddy Chen/HBO

The first episode of “Euphoria” showrunner Sam Levinson’s new show, “The Idol,” just landed on Max, the platform formerly known as HBO Max (I for one am not sure why it needed to rename itself after someone’s old Jewish uncle, but OK, fine). The show has already drawn much ire and generally been panned for its, for lack of a better word, lechery — with one early reviewer calling it “twisted ‘torture porn.'”

Personally, I found the first episode of the show deeply unsexy, mostly because in my eyes, sexy sex is usually joyful and if not, then at least explicitly consensual and enjoyable for all parties involved. The first episode ends with a sex scene that involves erotic asphyxiation that, in my opinion, is a bit iffy when it comes to consent. Still, the cinematography and the acting from the truly stacked cast is phenomenal, which is why I might stick around for a few more episodes to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Lily-Rose Depp is a revelation as the lead, Jocelyn, a pop star making a comeback after a breakdown she had following the death of her mother. The character has been compared to Britney Spears, and she even emulates the singer’s choreography in the first episode, but for me she’s most evocative of a “Wrecking Ball” era Miley Cyrus. Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd really shows off his acting chops as Tedros, a cult leader who gets into a relationship with Jocelyn. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a total badass as Jocelyn’s co-manager and BlackPink’s Jennie Kim brings some killer dance moves.

But the cast of the show is also deeply Jewish. Hari Nef plays Vanity Fair writer Talia (I am always here for more Hari Nef), Troye Sivan is absolutely wonderful as creative director Xander (more Troye please), Dan Levy is absolutely Dan Levy-esque (would you want him any other way?) as publicist Benjamin. Also, I’ll throw an honorable mention to Rachel Sennott, who is not Jewish, but who plays many a Jew, including in the excellent “Shiva Baby,” and who is funny and delightful as Jocelyn’s overbearing best friend and assistant.

And then, there are two amazing Jewish actors playing explicitly Jewish characters that I honestly feel not that great about.

First is Hank Azaria’s Chaim (a Hebrew name that means “life”). He’s Jocelyn’s co-manager (along with Randolph’s Destiny and Jane Adams’ record exec Nikki Katz, who is probably also Jewish, but is not overtly so in the first episode). Chaim is obviously Israeli, or at least, tries to be — Azaria pushes that “chet” at the beginning of his name a little too hard. There’s something a bit jarring about having such an openly Jewish person run the show behind Jocelyn, when the cast of characters around her is meant to be a little vulture-like. Don’t get me wrong, I love Azaria, and I want him to play more Jewish characters, but this one definitely makes me feel a bit ill at ease.

If Chaim isn’t enough, there’s Eli Roth’s Andrew Finkelstein, a name that, I have to be honest, might as well be “Jewy McJewpants.” The Jewish filmmaker plays a Live Nation rep tasked with representing Jocelyn.

In the show, as Jocelyn is being plagued by an explicit photo of her that was shared without her consent, Chaim greets a visibly agitated Finkelstein with, “Andrew Finkelstein, my second favorite Jew,” to which Roth’s character responds, “I’m not in the mood for the Jewish shit today.”

Listen, I don’t love it. It could maybe be funny if these two weren’t basically trying to live off of this young blonde (I assume, non-Jewish) pop star.

Andrew and Chaim then go on to have a very stereotypical Israeli vs. American Jew conversation, in which Chaim tries to get Andrew to chill with a kind of “everything will be sababa” (the common Hebrew slang term for great) attitude, even though we previously saw Chaim freaking out about said image.

Andrew is stressed about his shareholders and about 14-year-olds not buying concert tickets to Jocelyn’s shows. “My 15-year-old daughter sent me a photo I really wish she hadn’t,” he anxiously tells Nikki, and when she accuses him of slut-shaming, he answers, “There’s no shame to being a slut, case in point,” but that instead, he worries about the price he will have to pay if Jocelyn has another breakdown.

There’s definitely a tinge of that money-hungry Jewish stereotype in these two characters — it’s obvious that the show is portraying them as part of a group that only sees dollar bills, not a human, when they look at Jocelyn. And while that group is not exclusively Jewish, there’s something alarming about this type of representation, especially if it’s the only overt Jewish representation we are going to see in the show (with five episodes still coming, that is yet to be determined).

Yes, it’s true that you can’t make a show about the music industry without Jewish characters — Jewish music execs have been part of the industry for decades, and there have definitely been some who were exploitative and predatory. Portrayals of greedy Jewish music moguls are nothing new, from “The Sopranos” to “Ray” to countless other movies and TV shows. Yet in this day and age of rising antisemitism, there are ways to create more nuanced portrayals of Jews inside the music industry, as the recent “Spinning Gold” biopic showed us.

Levinson himself is Jewish, the son of the great Jewish director Barry Levinson, who has often mined his family’s Jewish history and identity in his work. Levinson’s first HBO project was actually pretty Jewish; he was a writer on “The Wizard of Lies,” which was directed by his father. The movie is a retelling of the Bernie Madoff scandal starring Robert DeNiro as Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife, Ruth. His most notorious and well-loved project is notably “Euphoria,” based on the Israeli show of the same name. Yet despite its very Jewish origins, “Euphoria” didn’t really have much Jewish rep to speak of, either in the cast or in the show.

Having Jewish creators or co-creators doesn’t by default stop harmful Jewish representation, as we’ve recently seen in Netflix’s “You People.” This show is about the foibles and the dark sides of the music industry, and there’s definitely quite a lot of harmful conspiracy theories about Jews and the entertainment industry as a whole that this portrayal of Andrew and Chaim feeds into.

I hardly think “The Idol” is intentionally trying to peddle in stereotypes or fuel any kind of antisemitic fire, but like a lot of the representation in the first episode, it does feel careless and heavy-handed. I truly hope the show does better in future episodes, but this first one has left me pretty uncomfortable as a Jewish viewer.

Skip to Banner / Top Skip to Content