The Idol Season 1 Episode 1 Lily Rose Depp
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Tv ‘The Idol’ is already at odds with itself

‘The Idol’ is already at odds with itself

The Idol Season 1 Episode 1 Lily Rose Depp

(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 after seeing 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, premiered at Cannes in late May, earning instant acclaim from film critics in attendance . But it arrived on the Croisette — and in its Sunday night outing on HBO — on a wave of behind-the-scenes controversy. Massive reshoots, expensive indulgences, and provocative subject matter drove initial conversations and concerns, which only seemed to fuel the buzz around the series, rather than doom it to a ‘vinyl-like’ fate.

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

It’s in the first 30 minutes of the premiere, when our first impressions of Jocelyn are formed, that the inconsistencies already start to set in. When she tells her manager, Chaim (Hank Azaria), to fire the intimacy coordinator so she can show her areolas in photographs, does she feel either empowered by her vision of the photoshoot or taken advantage of by her industry around her? When she wipes away her tears as she watches the rehearsals, is she exhausted and overworked or is she thinking about something else? If she’s her first, how does she make the time to watch “Basic Instinct” with her best friend/assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) one night and go clubbing the next? If it’s the latter, why doesn’t “The Idol” make the audience understand Jocelyn’s perspective?

Some of these questions seem intentional, some less so, but ‘Pop Tarts and Rat Tales’ wants to build on implications more than intimacy – and even those attempts quickly descend into confusing contradictions. Musical references abound, stemming from an expensive soundtrack (Madonna licensing fees don’t come cheap!) and directly from the script itself. (“You gonna call ‘When Doves Cry’ fucking shallow?”) Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” is the first song in the series, playing when Jocelyn releases her nipple, which at first seems appropriate, but it gets complicated the more you think about it. Given the song’s diegetic placement in the room and its “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” lyric, perhaps “The Idol” is a nod to the singer’s controversial music video, as it plays up how oblivious Jocelyn is, as she is manipulated into create something like this? As if she could hear the music, but she couldn’t connect to it beyond a superficial first impression.

But if so, then what does that tell us about Jocelyn? Is she like Fiona Apple? Is she closest to the most obvious comparison, Britney Spears? Is she both? Shouldn’t we know her as a character and not just a representation of real-world singers? Shouldn’t we know her during this first hour? Isn’t she our protagonist? When it comes to her photoshoot and her music, Jocelyn either has no choice (because of her handlers) or she can’t even fathom what those choices of hers would be like.

Later in the episode, she tells Leia that 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 make fun of me.” But… would they be wrong to do it? We don’t know how Jocelyn got here. We don’t know what she did to deserve her fame, or if she just fell into it. Did you once make music like Apple or have you been satisfied (until now) with raw copies? Wanting something meaningful and creating it are two different things, and in our introduction to Jocelyn, we just don’t learn enough about her or see enough from her perspective.

Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye in “The Idol”

However, this is only Episode 1. Maybe future rumors will lead us back to Jocelyn, or help us figure out who she really is beyond a grieving, depressed meltdown of a pop star. “The Idol” does quite well in its first half hour, mostly due to the forthright satirical comedy provided by Azaria’s Chaim, record executive Jane Adams, Nikki, and Da’Vine’s Destiny Joy Randolph, who is another of the managers by Jocelyn. Older and more experienced than their star client, the trio offer such obvious commentaries on the toxic nature of the music industry that they might as well be the Greek chorus. (Chaim locks the intimacy coordinator in a bathroom? Nikki claims mental illness is “sexy”? And that’s only in the first 15 minutes?)

Despite their comically exaggerated dialogue, it’s only when Tesfaye’s club owner named Tedros shows up that “The Idol” loses his grip on reality. Who is this guy? Why is Jocelyn attracted to him? Tesfaye’s performance provides nothing by way of explanation (how can a professional artist be so lifeless on camera?), and thematically makes Some makes sense – considering his only shown escape from idol duties is hitting clubs, so why not spend more time at 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 opening party montage, Tedros is just another guy at the bar, staring at a pop star in town. So, he’s behind the mic, talking about his club with her and buying a round of shots before pretending to see Jocelyn for the first time and asking her to dance.

OK, this is a little creepy ea touch ahead, but how else could a humble club owner impress 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), which the story gives you some reason to think, “Hey, maybe this guy isn’t okay?” Part of why Leia’s already infamous line — “He’s so violent,” to which Jocelyn says, “Yeah, I like that about him” — is so corny because there isn’t much narrative motivation to say for her at it. She just saw it. We have just seen! Just as “The Idol” is telling us to move forward with its weird fantasy rape storyline, it’s telling us how to feel about Tedros as realistically as its Bad Guy™ wardrobe does minutes later.

When he strokes her with an ice cube and nudges Jocelyn into sleeping with him, it’s apparent that “The Idol” leans too much into vibes while offering little insight into what she has to say. We’ve seen countless movies and shows about how exploitative the music industry can be, and despite there being an actual pop star running the show, the series is in desperate need of detail. Say something new, draw us into a pop star’s unique perspective, shape a world that laymen have no access to — just do something, anything, to justify all this chatter.

Even after an hour, 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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