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Debut episode of HBO's 'The Idol' delivers stylish aesthetics but falls short in engagement

The premiere episode of HBO's 'The Idol' left viewers with lingering questions as it delivered a visually impressive but ultimately lackluster viewing experience on Sunday. Starring Lily-Rose Depp as a pop star navigating her way through a mental health crisis and falling under the spell of a charismatic club owner/self-help guru/cult leader played by Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye, the series faced harsh criticism after its first two episodes premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month.

Agencies and A News SCREEN
Published June 05,2023

The initial episode of HBO's 'The Idol' left many unanswered questions despite its visually appealing presentation on Sunday.

The series features Lily-Rose Depp as a pop star who navigates a mental health crisis and falls under the influence of a hipster club owner/self-help guru/cult leader played by Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye. Following the show's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, it received scathing reviews. Moreover, a Rolling Stone exposé raised concerns about the excessive nudity and sexual content, depicting it as a toxic, male-oriented fantasy and sparking uncertainties about the show's intended narrative.

To be frank, there are moments in Sunday's episode that come dangerously close to fulfilling those concerns. In one scene, Depp's character, Jocelyn, engages in self-pleasure while choking herself. In another, after a friend suggests that Tesfaye's character, Tedros, has a "rapey" vibe, the pop star responds, "I kinda like that about him."

While it's true that some women may have unconventional preferences involving humiliation, pain, and sex, these scenes feel more like the male gaze in action—an interpretation of how men believe a woman might react rather than an authentic portrayal.

Sam Levinson, the creator of 'Euphoria,' serves as a co-creator, executive producer, writer, and director for 'The Idol,' alongside Tesfaye and Reza Fahim. Consequently, certain moments in 'The Idol' evoke the steamy and sordid atmosphere of 'Euphoria's party scenes, including a sequence in Tedros' club where he seduces Jocelyn to the pulsating beat of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." The episode also features Jocelyn's handlers drawing comparisons between her and Britney Spears, emphasizing the show's unmistakable parallels to real-life unpredictable blonde divas.

"Pop music is like the ultimate Trojan Horse," Tedros tells Jocelyn, delivering one of many lines in 'The Idol' that attempt profundity but ultimately fall short.

The most surprising aspect of the debut episode is the scarcity of actual plot progression. The limited scope of the action confines the story within a claustrophobic bubble, relying on sporadic nudity and sexual content to divert attention from the lack of substantial onscreen developments.

The show eschews subtlety, particularly in the first episode. Jocelyn's handlers, portrayed by Hank Azaria and Dan Levy, embody vulgarity, commercial focus, and a disregard for their client's pain—behaviors one would expect from such characters. Even as they speculate on her reaction to the explicit photo of her circulating on Twitter, Jocelyn's blasé response feels incongruous, especially when she later frets about the potential negative image portrayed by her new single. Shouldn't revenge porn be a more significant concern for a pop superstar?

Every scene meticulously unveils fragments of backstory. Jocelyn aims for a comeback following a described "nervous breakdown," possibly triggered by her mother's death. However, she despises the new single her handlers are promoting, feels exhausted and unenthusiastic about her work, and becomes susceptible to the seductive allure of a dangerous man referred to derisively by her assistant/best friend as "rat tail club guy."

Some viewers may fixate on the oddly erotic closing scene of the first episode, where Tedros covers Jocelyn's head with her robe, brandishes a knife, and cuts a hole for her mouth (as mentioned, subtlety is not a strong suit of this show). However, this moment feels cartoonishly provocative, and critiquing it only plays into the producers'