Euphoria’s Sam Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s erotic series about fame is not terrible but not great either.
Plot: Focuses on Jocelyn, an aspiring pop idol who, after having a nervous breakdown that causes her last tour to be canceled, resolves to reclaim her title as the sexiest pop star in America and begins a complex relationship with Tedros, a self-help guru and the head of a contemporary cult.
Review: With Barry and Succession ending last week, HBO is in need of a new Sunday tentpole for viewers to gather around and absorb before sharing across social media for the next week. With Sam Levinson’s Euphoria already a controversial hit for the cable network, HBO is banking on his polarizing follow-up, The Idol, to be the next big thing. After a divisive premiere at Cannes last week, The Idol premiered without providing screeners to critics for review. That usually means either the series is bad or there is concern that spoilers will premiere before the show. In the case of The Idol, it is likely a bit of both, as the first episode of the series is not completely terrible nor worthy of the prime Sunday timeslot it has inherited. At the very least, it is worth talking about.
The Idol follows Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a young pop singer who recently suffered the loss of her mother and a psychotic episode that her management team refuses to call a psychotic episode. On the brink of launching her new single and a world tour, a photo of the singer in a compromising position leaks online. With her manager Chaim (Hank Azaria), publicist Benjamin (Dan Levy), co-manager Destiny (De’Vine Joy Randolph), record executive Nikki (Jane Adams), creative director Xander (Troye Sivan), LiveNation rep Andrew Finkelstein (Eli Roth) and best friend/assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) all trying to protect and shield Jocelyn, the singer cannot help but feel out of control of her own life. Even her dance choreography suffers as performer Dyanne (Jennie Ruby Jane) eclipses her moves. Even a Vanity Fair writer (Hari Nef) who tries to get a story out of Jocelyn shows just how tenuous the singer’s connections are. But when Jocelyn heads out to a nightclub, she meets Tedros (Abel Tesfaye), who will change everything.
Tesfaye, better known by his stage name The Weeknd, portrays Tedros as a suave and attractive guy despite his creepy rattail hairstyle and overconfident demeanor. He hones in on Jocelyn, and the two immediately click. Like Euphoria, Sam Levinson does not avoid sexual content in this series. Jocelyn and Tedros get hot and heavy, briefly, before the singer is whisked away home, where she pleasures herself autoerotically. Jocelyn invites Tedros over to her home where she plays her new song for him and he begins to wax philosophically about sex and music before using a scarf to get a little risque. The episode ends on a note of erotic control bordering on BDSM and positioning the cult-like messages that Tedros will be spouting over the rest of the season. It is a boldly sexual sequence that also involves ice cubes and Donna Summer, but you will need to watch the episode to find out how they connect.
The first episode of The Idol is a mixed bag of themes, tones, and styles. The start of the hour-long chapter seems like it is going to approach this story like a satire on Britney Spears’ much-publicized mental health struggles. The conclave of people running Jocelyn’s life border on parody as they talk about what the leaked photo could do to her career as if the singer is not even a real person. Commentaries are made about on-set intimacy coordinators, self-empowerment, and the ever-driving greed of making money. The episode then shifts a bit to a portrait of a young woman trying to harness her own sexuality, with Depp playing right into the role of an ingenue with a hidden strength. Levinson is fairly heavy-handed with the allusions, going so far as to play scenes from Sharon Stone’s similarly empowering and sexualized role from Basic Instinct. Then, the episode shifts a third time into a dark power dynamic that feels like what we would have gotten if Nicolas Winding-Refn had directed Fifty Shades of Grey.
Developed from an idea by Abel Tesfaye, Reza Fahim, and Sam Levinson, The Idol seems to want to shock us with graphic sexual images and never really seems to get there. The story barely musters any energy as the characters glide from scene to scene in a dreamlike state that never feels authentic. Most of the supporting players feel like caricatures, especially Hank Azaria and Eli Roth, as over-the-top Jewish stereotypes. As typical of Levinson and Tesfaye, the music is a pulsating mix of eerie synth and electronic music coupled with pop songs that evoke sexual themes. The series is lensed in a dark but glossy look that lingers on Lily-Rose Depp’s sultry physique and pouting lips while making Abel Tesfaye look aggressive and sexual. There is clearly a morality story in The Idol mixed with a cautionary tale about celebrity. Still, this first episode ends up treading water more than kicking off a season-long tale.
It is very hard to judge a series based on one episode alone critically, but I am confident that this show is nowhere near as terrible as most reviews are saying. While it does not come close to the quality of Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, there is enough in this first chapter to intrigue me into returning for the next episode. Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye’s performances alone are impressive. I can see this series developing into something much better than this first episode, but I will remain hesitant until it comes to fruition. There is enough talent involved in The Idol that it would be virtually impossible for this series to fail completely, but as far as first episodes go, this one does not do enough to earn the marquee Sunday night HBO crown.
The Idol airs Sundays on HBO.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/the-idol-tv-review/