(Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for the first episode of “The Idol.”)
After setting the internet ablaze for months, “The Idol” finally premiered its first of five episodes on HBO Sunday night, setting the stakes for a frightening saga of the show that is sure to elicit strong reactions all the way.
The news cycle around the show, co-created by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, Reza Fahim and “Euphoria” co-creator Sam Levinson, has been as messy as the pop star’s life at its center: Originally helmed as an odyssey dream of “The Girlfriend Experience” showrunner Amy Seimetz, the unfinished version of “The Idol” was canned by Tesfaye and rebooted as an all-new project almost exactly a year ago with Levinson at the helm. While whether or not the review was worth it remains to be seen, the premiere makes it clear that any allegations of Tesfaye’s off-screen antics pale in comparison to the mysterious villain he plays in the show.
The first episode (one of two that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last week) sets the stage for a disturbing psychological thriller that doubles as a satire of the music industry. It features Lily Rose-Depp’s troubled pop star Joslyn and her anxious entourage, ending with the introduction of cult Tesfaye nightclub owner Tedros, who seduces the vulnerable celebrity and begins to infiltrate her world.
However viewers react, the stakes of “The Idol” have only just begun. Given Levinson’s complicated reputation from his three-season run on “Euphoria,” questions about the show’s prospects surrounded him even before reports emerged of crew members feeling uncomfortable with his sexualized storyline. Is “The Idol” an exploitative look at a scantily clad woman at the mercy of the male gaze – or a ruthless indictment of the same?
So far, the answer seems to be yes and yes: “The Idol” is full of contradictions. While Tesfaye wanted to play the villain, that doesn’t exactly mean she approves of the character.
At a press conference in Cannes, Tesfaye said that Joslyn reflected more his personal experiences in the industry than the anti-hero he plays. “I feel very lucky to have made some of the right decisions in my life,” she said. “Joslyn is almost like an alternate reality if I had made some of the wrong choices in my life. It’s almost like I’m trying to show the world or teach young artists to make the right decisions, perhaps subconsciously.”
That sort of histrionic statement is typical of the extremes surrounding “The Idol” at every turn. How much educational value the show offers remains to be seen, but it certainly establishes the paradoxes of modern stardom as a cautionary tale. Still mourning the death of her mother a year earlier and struggling with the reverberations of mental illness, Joslyn is in a state of perpetual vulnerability.
However, the show begins with the character seemingly empowered by her sexuality rather than a victim of it. An opening shot of a photo shoot at her mansion sees Joslyn vamping for the camera and revealing her breasts, much to the consternation of an on-set intimacy coordinator. (He is eventually trapped in a bathroom to have his concerns hushed by Joslyn’s rogue agent, played by Hank Azaria.) At a press conference in Cannes, Rose-Depp said the opening shot was meant to signal the essence of the character’s personality. “She IS a born and bred artist,” she said. “Her character physically mirrors the nakedness we see in her emotionally.”
Speculation around the show centered around the idea that Joslyn was inspired by Britney Spears, and Spears gets credit in the pilot when a member of Joslyn’s team compares her to the real-life singer. However, at the same Cannes press conference, Levinson denied that Spears had any influence on the show. “The Britney reference in the pilot is more of a publicist going around and trying to draw connections and correlations so that the press kindly writes about it,” he said. “We’re not trying to tell a story about a particular pop star. We’re looking at how the world perceives pop stars and the pressure they put on that individual.
As for Tedros, who comes to Joslyn’s house for a sultry date night at the end of the episode, Tesfaye said he thought of the character in classic monster movie terms. “The inspiration is Dracula,” she said. “He’s grooming the girl.” A dramatic nocturnal moment near the end of the episode, which sees the gates of Joslyn’s apartment open to reveal Tedros standing in center frame, was meant to elicit a campy effect. During the Cannes premiere, Tesfaye said, “I couldn’t tell if everyone in the theater was laughing, because me, Sam and Lily were laughing so much.”
Levinson echoed Tesfaye’s impression of the character as someone who wishes he were more like the real musician who plays him. The premiere shows how Tedros seduces Joslyn and begins to influence her music into believing that he has the solution to her creative crisis. Of course, it’s just a ploy for his own entourage to infiltrate her existence, as the next episode will make clear. “I thought, ‘What if this character has all of Abel’s dreams, all of Abel’s vision of culture, but what if he doesn’t have the talent?’” Levinson said. “I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be for him and the darkness it would create within him…and thus force him to find a puppet, so to speak.”
Tedros isn’t the only questionable character circling Joslyn in the first episode. In addition to Azaria, the show sketches some of the other figures who influence her decisions, including Nikki (Jane Adams), a foul-mouthed record label executive, a ruthless head of Live Nation (Eli Roth), her co-manager (Da’ Vine Joy) and his longtime friend turned assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott). The episode shows how they deal with a real-time crisis, when a photo leaks onto the internet showing Joslyn with her face covered in cum. “There are people you meet in this business who are passionate about the people they represent and fight for them and want to protect them,” Levinson said. “What they’re trying to manage is someone who’s fragile in a lot of ways.”
At the Cannes press conference, Adams agreed. “To me, it’s almost like a family dynamic,” she said. “They’re trying so hard to protect her, but my character is (also) worried about other things.” Azaria echoed that perception as it pertained to her character. “If she was really protective of her, it would take her out of this,” she said.
The next episode of ‘The Idol’ will further demonstrate how Tedros works his way into Joslyn’s life as her trusted circle grows increasingly concerned. “Have I met someone like Tedros? I don’t fucking think so,” Tesfaye said in Cannes. Seated next to her, Levinson replied, “If you had, I don’t think you’d be here.”
As “The Idol” continues to unfold over the next few weeks, don’t expect Levinson to be in on the evolving talk. Reached via email just days before the premiere, he told IndieWire, “I think I’ll let the show speak for itself.”