The trailers have set us up for a memorable and spooky time. In the first teaser for the highly anticipated HBO series The idola title card heralded the show as a product of the “sick & twisted minds” of Euphoria director Sam Levinson and international pop star Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye. The second hinted at an origin story: from “the Hollywood goths,” it said.
It’s always a little suspicious when shows try to market themselves as edgy. What are they trying to prove? This obvious effort to make The idol seem controversial took an ironic turn when the series became the subject of an explosion Rolling stone report. Interviews with about a dozen people from the cast and crew revealed that the show, initially billed as an exploration of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the music industry, became what it attempted to satirize. Sources claimed that after director Amy Seimetz was replaced by Sam Levinson, the perspective of the drama changed. Rather than subtly puncturing the misogynistic and predatory nature of the company, The idol became a forbidden love story – the stuff of a toxic man’s fantasy.
It comes down to
Trying too hard.
Levinson’s version of The idol sadly confirms that account. This is an older, even more stylized version of Euphoria‘s second season. Instead of a high school student dealing with her addictions, it’s a grieving pop star trying to make a comeback. Jocelyn (a convincing Lily-Rose Depp) spent the past year recovering from heartbreak and the death of her mother from cancer. In the first of two episodes of The idol shown in Cannes, we see Jocelyn taking assignments from a photographer. He asks her to give “sexy,” “studious,” “vulnerable,” and “emotional.” As Jocelyn complies, the camera zooms out to reveal an entire operation buzzing around her. The photographer hovers, her assistant texts in a corner, her managers confer outside, and the intimacy coordinator makes a desperate effort to ensure the pop star’s nude rider is followed. Stars, the show tells us, are businesses.
In the background of the shoot, Jocelyn’s label manager Nikki (an excellent Jane Adams) argues with the star’s creative director (Troye Sivan), who is against Jocelyn exposing her breasts for the album cover shoot. She tells him to “stop blocking America”. That brief moment announces the show’s intent and raises a metaphorical hand to incoming haters: sex sells, and The idol rejoices in it.
For what purpose is not very clear. The idollike that second season of Euphoria, runs almost exclusively on vibes. Levinson applies his efficient and stylish direction to every scene. Some have momentum, others are contradictory, and most are confusing. It makes you wonder if, by trying so hard to be cross-border, the show ends up being regressive. Jocelyn affirms her freedom of choice in the first ten minutes, but gives up at any conceivable moment. Rarely does a scene go by without the camera showing flashes of her breasts or ass. You start to wonder if this is leading anywhere, and in episode two it seems likely that it probably isn’t.
Jocelyn’s relationship with Tedros (Tesfaye, a bit stiff), a nightclub manager and self-help guru with dubious motivations, develops in a similar way. Their courtship – captured in self-consciously staged scenes overlaid with a soap opera score – builds so fast it’s hard to believe. They meet at Tedros’ club, where Jocelyn goes out after a hard day. She struggles to capture her choreography for a music video, a picture of her with cum on her face has just gone viral and a reporter from Vanity purse (Hari Nef) was waiting to interview her for a big profile.
At the club, Jocelyn makes eye contact with Tedros and the rest is history. Levinson presents their flirtation in an instant: Jocelyn and Tedros see each other from across the room; he asks her to dance over the club’s loudspeakers; they end in a random stairwell. It all feels a bit like a music video for a Drake single. Jocelyn’s attraction to Tedros is explained in a stunning conversation with her best friend and assistant Leia (a particularly wonderful Rachel Sennott). When Leia gently advises Jocelyn not to see Tedros because he has “rapey” vibes, the lovestruck pop star admits that’s why she likes him. None of this inspires confidence in Jocelyn’s agency.
The idol shows a glimpse of potential when it stops trying so hard to be shocking. There is a tension in the sex scenes between Depp and Tesfaye that kills any sense of eroticism. It’s a relief when the show moves away from them and focuses on Joceyln’s struggle to make a comeback. Her mother’s death leaves Jocelyn vulnerable and undocked. Her unpredictable moods keep her management team on edge, but they’ve also given Jocelyn a sense of herself. Watching the young star try to refocus on music — through conversation with Tedros or physically taxing music video rehearsals — the show feels like it’s working on a more interesting thesis rather than being just one long ad for a cursed experience.
The same goes for Levinson’s portrayal of the machinations of the music industry. At one point, Adams’ Nikki tells Jocelyn – via a lashing, scene-stealing monologue – that she is indeed more product than person to her team. This happens after the singer spent a night with Tedros and recorded a new version of a label-approved single. Those attempts to explore – to make, in Jocelyn’s words, music that will last long after her – are met with uneasy reluctance and disapproval. The confrontations between Jocelyn and her team tease the ridiculous brutality of stardom and being a public figure. Paradoxically, they also make Jocelyn feel more like a person than a product.