The trailers set us up for a memorable and haunted time. In the first teaser for the highly anticipated HBO series The Idol, a title card announced the show as a product of the “sick & twisted minds” of Euphoria director Sam Levinson and international pop star Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye. The second one hinted at an origin story: From “the gutters of Hollywood,” it read.
It’s always a bit suspicious when shows try to market themselves as edgy. What are they trying to prove? This obvious effort to make The Idol appear controversial took an ironic turn when the series became the subject of an explosive Rolling Stone report. Interviews with roughly a dozen people from the cast and crew revealed that the show, initially billed as an exploration of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the music industry, became what it tried to satirize. Sources alleged that after director Amy Seimetz was replaced with Sam Levinson, the drama’s perspective changed. Instead of subtly skewering the misogynistic and predatory nature of the business, The Idol became a forbidden love story — the stuff of a toxic man’s fantasy.
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Levinson’s The Idol unfortunately confirms that account. This is an older, even more stylized version of Euphoria’s second season. Instead of a high-schooler navigating her addictions, it’s a grieving pop star trying to stage a comeback. Jocelyn (a persuasive Lily-Rose Depp) spent the last year recovering from heartbreak and her mother’s death from cancer. In the first of two episodes of The Idol shown at Cannes, we see Jocelyn taking commands from a photographer. He asks her to give “sexy,” “studious,” “vulnerable” and “emotional.” As Jocelyn complies, the camera zooms out to reveal an entire operation buzzing around her. The photographer hovers, her assistant texts in a corner, her managers confer outside and the intimacy coordinator makes a desperate attempt to make sure the pop star’s nudity rider is followed. Stars, the show tells us, are corporations.
In the background of the shoot, Jocelyn’s label executive Nikki (an excellent Jane Adams) argues with the star’s creative director (Troye Sivan), who’s against Jocelyn baring her breast for the album cover shoot. She tells him to “stop cockblocking America.” That brief moment announces the show’s intention and puts a metaphorical hand up at incoming haters: Sex sells, and The Idol revels in that.
To what end is not very clear. The Idol, like that second season of Euphoria, runs almost exclusively on vibes. Levinson applies his efficient and stylish direction to every scene. Some of them have momentum, others are contradictory and most of them are confusing. It makes you wonder if in trying so hard to be transgressive, the show ultimately becomes regressive. Jocelyn asserts her agency in the first ten minutes, only to relinquish it at every conceivable moment. Rarely does a scene go by without the camera showing flashes of her breasts or ass. You start to wonder if this is building to anything, and by episode two it seems likely that it’s probably not.
Jocelyn’s relationship with Tedros (Tesfaye, a bit stiff), a nightclub manager and self-help guru with dubious motivations, develops in a similar manner. Their courtship — captured in self-consciously directed scenes overlaid by a soap-ish score — builds so quickly it’s hard to believe. They meet in Tedros’ club, where Jocelyn goes out after a rough day. She’s struggling to nail her choreography for a music video, a photo of her with cum on her face has just gone viral, and a reporter from Vanity Fair (Hari Nef) was waiting to interview her for a big profile.
In the club, Jocelyn makes eye contact with Tedros and the rest is history. Levinson presents their flirtation in blinks: Jocelyn and Tedros spot each other from across the room; he asks her to dance over the club’s speakers; they end up making out in a random stairwell. It all kind of feels like a music video for a Drake single. Jocelyn’s attraction to Tedros is explained in a stunning conversation with her best friend and assistant Leia (a particularly wonderful Rachel Sennott). When Leia cautiously advises Jocelyn against seeing Tedros because he has “rapey” vibes, the smitten pop star admits that’s why she likes him. None of this inspires faith in Jocelyn’s agency.
The Idol shows glimmers of potential when it stops trying so hard to be shocking. There’s a strenuousness to the sex scenes between Depp and Tesfaye that kills any sense of eroticism. It’s a relief when the show moves away from them and focuses on Joceyln’s struggle to stage a comeback. The death of her mother has left Jocelyn vulnerable and unmoored. Her unpredictable moods cause her management team to stay on edge, but they have also left Jocelyn without a sense of herself. When we see the young star trying to recommit to music — through conversation with Tedros or physically taxing music video rehearsals — the show feels like it’s working toward a more interesting thesis instead of just being one long advertisement for a cursed experience.
The same is true for Levinson’s representation of the music industry’s machinations. At one point, Adams’ Nikki tells Jocelyn — via an eviscerating, scene-stealing monologue — that to her team, she is indeed more product than person. This happens after the singer has spent a night with Tedros and recorded a new version of a label-approved single. Those attempts to explore — to, in Jocelyn’s words, create music that will last long after her — are met with awkward reticence and disapproval. The confrontations between Jocelyn and her team tease out the ridiculous cruelty of stardom and being a public figure. They also, paradoxically, make Jocelyn feel more like a person than a product.
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