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The Scuzzy 'The Idol' Premiere Is Shockingly Dull

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 5, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 5, 2023 |


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The premiere episode of The Idol, the “controversial” HBO series from Sam Levinson, has finally arrived. What I’ll say upfront about The Idol is that, while some of the elements of the pilot episode might sound “provocative” or “incendiary” on paper, the episode itself is a surprisingly dull combination of smut, ennui, and cigarette ash. As Sam Levinson joints go, it’s more like the pretentious, navel-gazing Malcolm & Marie than Euphoria, but it doesn’t have the talented leads of either. It has, instead, Lily-Rose Depp, who is no Zendaya, and Abel Tesfaye, who is a much (much) better musician than he is an actor.

In a nutshell: Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is an aspiring pop star trying to restart her career after a nervous breakdown. The episode opens with a photo shoot in which Joss’s people — her record label executive Nikki (Jane Adams), her co-managers Chaim and Destiny (Hank Azaria and Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a Live-Nation rep, Andrew Finkelstein (Eli Roth), and her publicist, Benjamin (Dan Levy) — have to manage an intimacy coordinator that Jocelyn doesn’t want to listen to, as well as a photograph of Jocelyn with semen on her face that surfaced and went viral. (“Who among us has not had cum on their face?” asks Nikki.)

Joss wants to change the nudity rider; the intimacy coordinator requires 48 hours’ notice, so Chaim locks the intimacy coordinator in a room so that Joss can finish the photoshoot. After the photo shoot, Joss performs in a “provocative” dance sequence for a music video. Her people — as well as Leia (Rachel Sennott), Jocelyn’s best friend and assistant — try to shield her from the photograph, but she can’t escape it for long. Her reaction is mostly a shrug.

That night, she goes to a club, where she meets Tedros (Abel Tesfaye), a sketchy self-help guru whom Leia accurately describes as “rape-y. He’s got bad vibes.” Joss is smitten with him. She goes home and masturbates while choking herself.

She wakes up the next morning to discuss the photograph of her with cum on her face with a Vanity Fair reporter, Talia Hirsch. (VF: “Who do you answer to?” Joss: “God.” Okaaay.). Later, after watching Basic Instict with Leia and talking about how she hates her superficial new single, Joss invites Tedros over. After some formalities (she makes him wait; he does some coke), the two discuss her new single while Tedros negs her about her ability to fuck while rubbing an ice cube on her crotch. Then he pulls some psychologically dark manipulation tactic, whereby he covers her face with a make-shift mask for some more auto-erotic asphyxiation. “Do you trust me?” he scuzzes. “Open your mouth.” He uses a knife to create a hole in her mouth opening so she can breathe again. “Now you can sing,” he says, as she pants for air.

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That’s it aside from the 17 cigarettes that Joss must smoke during the premiere, the several shots of her breasts, and the literal use of the word “like” 86 times in the pilot (not an exaggeration). The writing is terrible. To wit:

Joss: ‘Cause everyone in my life is, like, telling me that it’s really great, but I don’t believe them.
Tedros: Why?
Joss: ‘Cause when you’re famous, everyone lies to you. And you trust me? I just think you’re enough of an asshоlе that you might tell me the truth.
Tedros: Cheers to that.

The other elements — the masturbation/choking, the photograph, the ice — almost have to be provocative lest the viewer pays too much attention to the tone-deaf writing or the cringey acting. There’s no spark or chemistry, either. Whatever combination of factors makes Euphoria at times compelling, and almost always entertaining, is missing here.

It’s also easy to see where this is going: Tedros will manipulate and control Joss and her career, alienate all of her people, and destroy her life. It’s an infinitely familiar formula. What kind of show will The Idol be? The kind where Joss gets out from under his control and takes back her career? Or the kind where Joss ends up overdosing in a back alley after she’s lost everything? With Sam Levinson, it could go either way. What is certain, however, is that it will be hackneyed.