This review covers the first two episodes of The Idol
Despite the controversy that has surrounded the production of The Idol in the months leading up to its release, it’s at least owed to every last member of the cast and crew to evaluate the HBO original series as it’s being presented to an audience. Co-creators Abel Tesfaye, better known as music sensation The Weeknd, his producing partner Reza Fahim, and director Sam Levinson (Euphoria) have been outspoken about wanting their collaborative endeavor to depict a dark and twisted Hollywood fairytale. The Idol honestly does feel like it has something to say about the flip side of the glamourous facade which the industry puts up for the general public. It paints a picture of how even the people who come across as overtly confident are often the most insecure. Though it is a show designed to be provocative at its core, this does work to its advantage on occasion.
The harsh truth of born and bred pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is apparent. She was simply a child forced to grow up too quickly, a case that has been witnessed far too many times in both fiction and reality, especially with young female stars. In the face of grief following the passing of her mother, Jocelyn has what is referred to by her publicity team as a “breakdown.” Succeeding the eight months of rehabilitation that follow, she now attempts to relaunch her singing career with a new single and music video, which is far more debilitating than it may sound. Everything changes when she meets the mysterious music guru Tedros (Abel Tesfaye) at his nightclub. Jocelyn is inspired by him and begins to remix her music. She’s soon enticed to join his own label of young talent by the second episode, but it quickly comes across as a cult.
With fame comes multiple personnel who work behind the scenes to build a brand and presence for any star from the ground up. Evidently, Jocelyn is uninspired by the mindless but catchy pop single that her team is pressuring her to release. The reckless actions that ensue are that of an artist grappling with the burden of lacking creative control over their own career. Even if an artist’s struggle with their management from both creative and commercial perspectives is ground that has been already well-documented for decades, The Idol captures this battle for artistic autonomy in its entirety while also being an impressive piece of television from a creative standpoint. Designed to appeal to the modern eye, The Idol is beautifully captured on analog film and features grand visuals, exquisite production design, and costumes that pop from the screen.
It feels like Lily-Rose Depp was born to play Jocelyn. She embodies the awe-inspiring superstars that dominate today’s pop culture with her beauty and calm exterior but also possesses the ability to evoke sincere empathy in the character’s moments of vulnerability and weakness. This is without a doubt her best performance to date. From the outset, Depp is given ample opportunity to explore a vast range of emotions, proving that she is irrevocably a star, both on and off-screen in her own right.
The dialogue within The Idol awkwardly fluctuates in quality, primarily the lines recited by Tesfaye as Tedros, which at times sound directly ripped from fan fiction. Tesfaye’s performance is too distracting and on a different wavelength from every single other character in the show, carrying the banality of a villainous caricature. However, the real-life music mogul does manage to bring positives to the table in other fields. The original songs Tesfaye created for the series emulate the sparkling yet grim atmosphere of the world around Jocelyn, who is as captivating as she can be. Ultimately, it’s a shame that the same level of nuance was not put into Tesfaye’s character as the momentum always decelerates whenever he enters the screen. Given his actual icon status, this is most disappointing for fans.
Moving away from Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye, The Idol is in no short supply of unique supporting characters, who are all multi-faceted and add enough complexity to the story through their interactions with one another. To no surprise, Rachel Sennott is a clear standout as Jocelyn’s best friend turned assistant, Leila. The rest of the large ensemble – including Da’vine Joy Randolph, Troye Sivan, Hank Azaria, Dan Levy, Jane Adams, Moses Sumney, and Mike Dean – holds their own weight and are not drowned out by the sheer number of individuals to keep track of. Hidden within the crowd surrounding the performer, we as an audience are effectively trying to determine who genuinely has Jocelyn’s best interests at heart and who sees her merely as a business venture to be exploited simultaneously as the character does.
Female sexuality is not something that needs to be omitted by any means, but it’s something that risks being ironically exploited in The Idol. Modern pop stars are forced to have a certain degree of sex appeal and The Idol, although certainly provocative, at times uses nudity and scenes defined by sexuality to dissect these themes rather than for cheap shock value. There are moments where Jocelyn finds creative vitality in her sexuality, which is a powerful notion that is not often explored in big-budget productions like this. Yet, at the same time, for all the good faith The Idol builds up with this kind of nuance, it still contains sex scenes that are in no way integral to the plot or earned. It’s a dangerous push-and-pull that will need to be further discussed outside of the first two episodes as the series airs on HBO this summer.
Considering his ability to be charming in the past, Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye struggles to create any level of allure that would explain Jocelyn’s near-immediate infatuation that undoubtedly puts her in a dangerous position, not only for her career but also for her well-being. The show’s core relationship could have benefitted from utilizing a slow burn technique in these first two episodes in order to create a level of nuanced tension and chemistry between the two leads. With an appropriate level of anticipation and a clear motive behind Jocelyn’s desire, some crucial scenes shared between them would have felt in service of the narrative instead of feeling like throw-away segments designed purely to pander to the male gaze.
What The Idol requires to become a stellar piece of television is some simple streamlining. With some fine-tuning, this is a tale of an artist caught between two different, yet both toxic, styles of management, betrayal, and the struggle of finding your individual creative voice. In the absence of interruption from unnecessarily erotic sequences, the story at hand boasts a necessary message regarding the condition of the industry, managing to encapsulate the pure terror of seeing the vision one may have of personal aspirations and dreams slowly slipping away.