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Memo to showrunners: When in doubt about your lead character, just cut to her masturbating while choking herself.
It’s a little past the halfway mark of the first episode of The Idol — the HBO series about the pressure chamber of pop stardom from the minds of Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson — and we’ve already gotten to know a little bit about Jocelyn, the show’s singer/dancer/mega-famous mono-monikered celebrity played by Lily Rose-Depp. She’s suffered a recent loss and experienced a serious nervous breakdown, but everyone assures each other she’s doing perfectly fine now, thanks for asking. That the people saying this are Jocelyn’s PR flacks, in-house social media hacks, spin doctors, damage controllers, handlers and hanger-on types, i.e. the folks on her payroll, shouldn’t phase anybody, because, like, they really care about her. There’s also a new album on the horizon, which Jocelyn isn’t that psyched about, and a tour, and photo shoots. Plus someone leaked a selfie of her with semen all over her face, which has sent her team into a tizzy.
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But we have not seen Jocelyn pleasure herself yet, and dear god, it’s been close to 40 minutes already! How are we supposed to know who this person really is?!? So, having come home straight from the club in the wee small hours, the young woman clutches one hand tightly over her throat and the other one under her dress. The sequence only goes on for less than a minute, yet given that we’ve already seen her get turned on by the strange mystery man she’s just met, it’s enough to make you wonder why, exactly, we’re watching her do this. Or why the series will compel Jocelyn to briefly engage in onanism yet again for the audience in another scene shortly after that. Some might suggest this is supposed to be “character development.” We have other words we’d use to describe this.
A portrait of showbiz skeeviness which, if the stories are to be believed, wasn’t just happening in front of the camera, The Idol premiered its first two episodes at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday night and left a snail’s trail of sleaze across the Croisette. And while it’s tempting to say that everything you’ve heard about it is true, that may be soft-selling how skin-crawling the experience of actually watching this satire (?) on the seven circles of showbiz hell is. The double-dose the festival screened felt nasty, brutish, much longer than it is, and way, way worse than you’d have anticipated.
You’d expect the person behind Euphoria to bring the sex, the drugs and the empty decadence in abundance, and The Weeknd to interject a firsthand sense of how superstardom can warp your perspective on the world without necessarily washing away your sins. This is what his music does so beautifully. (Jocelyn is clearly a composite character — a bit of Britney, a dash of Doja, a whole lotta late ’80s Madonna — but it’s not a leap to suggest that Tesfaye is channeling some personal angst over the modern star-making meat grinder.) Not to mention that HBO has a history of shows that combine luxury-lifestyle wish fulfillment and the wearying behind-the-scenes hustle of the entertainment business, from Entourage to Ballers.
All of that’s in there. Yet The Idol wraps everything up in a contradictory morality tale that suggests the music industry views young female stars the way that wolves view red-hooded gamines in fairy tales while letting you revel in the same predatory heavy-breathing voyeurism. It’s very much a “have your cake and bark dirty talk as you blindfold and fuck it too” situation.
The person whispering vulgar nothings in Jocelyn’s ears, and micromanaging her porn-star poses as foreplay, is a guy named Tedros (Tesfaye). This club owner and would-be major player spots her on the dance floor, gives her a shout-out, starts grinding up against her, and quickly moves their two-person party to the back stairwell. Later, this stranger shows up at her mansion in cape-like trenchcoat, filmed backlit in her driveway like Dracula out for a late evening’s bite (we should note that this is the single most subtle moment in the two episodes they screened). Jocelyn plays him her new hit, about being a freak in the sheets. Tedros doesn’t buy it. She needs to sing it like she means it. Lucky for her, this self-appointed Svengali is going to help her get there, one kink at a time.
What follows are a couple of sex scenes, or maybe they’re graphic sex-adjacent scenes that act like they’re boundary-pushing and transgressive, and play like softcore Skinemax outtakes with dialogue updated for 2023. It’s hard to say whether we’re supposed to take these seriously or be titillated by them, but The Idol has already anticipated any criticism its erotica-by-numbers might get and addressed it at the outset. Before Tedros enters the picture, we get to hang with Jocelyn at a photo shoot and meet her elite commando unit of a team, including a manic Dan Levy, a curiously accented Hank Azaria, Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennott and the always great Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who turns every reaction-shot punchline into a verbal haymaker. Jocelyn’s creative director (Troye Sivan) is hemming and hawing about the fact that their client/boss is being sexualized and exploited — she just had an incident of mental instability, and she’s wearing a medical bracelet while pouting at the camera! Then Jocelyn’s manager (Jane Adams) begins bitching about the “college-educated internet types” who think they call the shots. People don’t want commentary. They want 24/7 reality-TV Insta-friendly meta-pornography. “Stop trying to cock-block America!” she screams.
It’s a hilarious line and to The Idol‘s credit, the show doesn’t bury the lede. Levinson and The Weeknd want this show to be a horny, thirsty, controversial look at an industry that views slobbering over nubile bodies, before chewing them up and spitting out their souls, as a successful business model. But they also want to give a hearty middle finger to anyone who’d suggest the show is simply salacious even as its goes for maximum sensationalism. And don’t get them started on intimacy coordinators! When one complains about Jocelyn’s breasts showing during the photo shoot — never mind that she revealed them herself, “we’re going to have to rewrite the nudity rider” — this cuck-bait of a character is locked in a bathroom. There’s a feeling that a personal grudge is being aired out in public here, and then you remember that Levinson was the guy who used part of a movie to troll a film critic who had issues with his previous film. Pettiness is part of the brand.
Where The Idol goes after the two episodes that previewed at this prestigious film festival is anyone’s guess, though our money would probably be on “further downward and fast.” The end of the second episode brings Tedros and his own personal entourage even further into Jocelyn’s immediate orbit, and suggests the real puppetmaster-style manipulation is right around the corner. Except we’ve already seen enough to clock that the series has fallen into a series of traps. It has mistaken misery for profundity, stock perversity for envelope-pushing, crude caricatures for sharp satire, toxicity for complexity, nipple shots for screen presence.
During the press conference after the screening, Levinson addressed the recent Rolling Stone story about the horrible atmosphere on the set, saying that this magazine could “write whatever it wants” and that when his wife read him the article, “I said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’ My only gripe is that they intentionally omitted anything that didn’t fit their narrative. But there’s been a lot of that lately.”
It was Tesfaye, however, who gave the most revealing and honest answer of the day. Asked at the jump about why he wanted to make this, he talked about the movies he and Sam loved, and the desire to make “a dark twisted fairy tale on the music industry” that takes a hard look at the agony and the absurdity of the business we call show. Mostly, however, he wanted to make a show to, among other things, “piss people off.” You don’t need to be a college-educated internet type to recognize that, at the very least, The Idol succeeded in doing at least one thing right.
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