‘The Idol’ Is Already at Odds with Itself

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[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Idol” Episode 1, “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales.”]

Typically, when there’s less to say about a new show once you’ve seen it than before it premiered, that’s a bad sign. “The Idol,” co-created by “Euphoria” mastermind Sam Levinson, newcomer Reza Fahim, and The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, first debuted at Cannes in late May, earning immediate pans from the smattering of film critics in attendance. But it rode onto the Croisette — and into its Sunday night HBO release — on a wave of behind-the-scenes controversy. Massive reshoots, expensive indulgences, and provocative subject matter drove early conversation and concern, all of which only seemed to fuel buzz around the series, rather than doom it to a “Vinyl”-like fate.

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Now, the rat’s out of the bag. Episode 1, “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales,” introduces audiences to Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a pop superstar who’s preparing to release her first album after losing her mother and possibly suffering “a psychotic break.” She poses for the cover art, surrounded by the crew, various handlers, and bitchy executives. She practices her dance routine in her backyard while the aforementioned managers literally look down on her. She is simultaneously unhappy and overwhelmed, while also bored and seeking an escape.

Its within the first 30 minutes of the premiere, as our early impressions of Jocelyn are formed, that incongruities already start cracking through. When she tells her manager, Chaim (Hank Azaria), to fire the intimacy coordinator so she can show her areolas in the photographs, is she feeling empowered by her vision of the photo shoot, or is she being taken advantage of by the industry around her? When she wipes away tears while watching rehearsals, is she exhausted and overworked, or thinking about something else entirely? If it’s the former, how does she have time to watch “Basic Instinct” with her best friend/assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) one night and go club-hopping the next? If it’s the latter, why doesn’t “The Idol” clue in the audience to Jocelyn’s perspective?

Some of these questions feel purposeful, others less so, but “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales” wants to coast on implications more than intimacy — and even those attempts quickly descend into confounding contradictions. Music references abound, stemming from a costly soundtrack (Madonna’s licensing rights don’t come cheap!) and straight from the script itself. (“Are you gonna call ‘When Doves Cry’ fucking superficial?”) Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” is the first song of the series, playing when Jocelyn frees her nipple, which feels fitting, at first, but gets complicated the longer you think about it. Given the song’s diegetic placement in the room and its “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” lyrics, perhaps “The Idol” is nodding to the singer’s controversial music video, while playing up how oblivious Jocelyn is, as she’s manipulated into creating something similar? Like she can hear the music, but she can’t connect to it beyond a superficial first impression.

But if that’s the case, then what does that tell us about Jocelyn? Is she like Fiona Apple? Is she closer to the more obvious comparison, Britney Spears? Is it both? Shouldn’t we know her as a character, and not just a representation of real-world singers? Shouldn’t we be getting to know her during this first hour? Isn’t she our protagonist? When it comes to her photo shoot and her music, Jocelyn either doesn’t have a choice (because of her handlers) or she can’t fathom what those choices would even look like.

Later in the episode, she tells Leia she’s worried about her new single. “I don’t want to make a fool of myself,” she says. “I don’t want people to, like, make fun of me.” But… would they be wrong in doing so? We don’t know how Jocelyn got here. We don’t know what she’s done to deserve her fame, or if she simply fell into it. Did she once make music like Apple, or has she been content (until now) with crude copies? Craving something meaningful and creating it are two different things, and in our introduction to Jocelyn, we simply don’t learn enough about her or see enough from her point-of-view.

Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye in “The Idol”
Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye in “The Idol”

Still, this is only Episode 1. Perhaps future entries will bring us back around to Jocelyn, or help us understand who she really is beyond a grieving, depressed, amalgamation of a pop star. “The Idol” works well enough in its first half-hour, mainly because of the blunt satiric comedy delivered by Azaria’s Chaim, Jane Adams’ record executive, Nikki, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Destiny, who’s another one of Jocelyn’s managers. Older and more experienced than their star client, the trio serve up such obvious commentary on the music industry’s toxic nature they may as well be the Greek Chorus. (Chaim locks the intimacy coordinator in a bathroom? Nikki argues that mental illness is “sexy”? And that’s just in the first 15 minutes?)

Despite their comically over-the-top dialogue, it’s only when Tesfaye’s club owner named Tedros shows up that “The Idol” loses its tether to reality. Who… is this guy? Why is Jocelyn attracted to him? Tesfaye’s performance provides nothing by way of explanation (how can a professional performer be so lifeless on camera?), and thematically, it makes some sense — considering her only shown escape from idol duties is to hit the clubs, so why not commit more time to a club owner. But taken at face value, Tedros is a creepy snoozefest. Levinson, who directs every episode, does him no favors. First introduced during the initial party montage, Tedros is just another guy at the bar, staring at a pop star out on the town. Then, he’s behind the mic, talking up his club and buying a round of shots before pretending to see Jocelyn for the first time and asking her to dance.

OK, that’s a little creepy and a touch forward, but how else would a lowly club owner make an impression on an international icon? Aside from all the emphasis on his “rat tail” haircut, it’s only when he shows up at Jocelyn’s house later, dressed like a literal TV villain in an all-black ensemble (complete with leather duster), that the story gives you any reason to think, “Hey, maybe this guy’s not OK?” Part of the reason Leia’s already infamous line — “He’s so rape-y,” to which Jocelyn says, “Yeah, I kind of like that about him” — is so cloying is because there’s not a lot of narrative motivation for her to say it. She’s barely seen him. We’ve barely seen him! Just as “The Idol” is telling us to go along with its weird rape fantasy storyline, she’s telling us how to feel about Tedros as matter-of-factly as his Bad Guy™ wardrobe does a few minutes later.

By the time he’s stroking her with an ice cube and gaslighting Jocelyn into sleeping with him, it’s evident “The Idol” is leaning way too hard on vibes while offering scant insight into what it has to say. We’ve seen countless movies and shows about how exploitative the music industry can be, and despite having an actual pop star driving the show, the series is in desperate need of specifics. Say something new, draw us into the unique perspective of a pop star, shape a world we laypeople have no access to — just do something, anything, to warrant all this chatter.

Even an hour in, the conversation should be rooted in narrative discovery, not confusion.

Grade: C

“The Idol” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The series is available to stream on Max.

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