The first shot of HBO’s new series The Idol is Lily-Rose Depp staring straight into the camera while off-screen, a photographer is instructing her character Jocelyn on what emotions she must evoke in every new picture taken. I immediately had A Clockwork Orange vibe, being that the Stanley Kubrick film opened in the same style — and as the story develops, how the theme in The Idol can be considered in the same vein of something as A Clockwork Orange. When a normal person becomes part of a machine, they tend to have their humanity taken away by those pretending to lend a helping hand. One could say there’s no difference between a tyrannical government and the music industry: by any means necessary, both want their money in the end.
After the first episode premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, The Idol was immediately met with controversy. Not how the show criticizes the “beloved” American Music industry, but that the show’s creators — one being Sam Levinson of Euphoria — are sexually exploiting Lily-Rose Depp through the show’s depiction of nudity and simulated sex scenes. To be honest, I don’t see anything nefarious in the scenes filmed for the show. Compared to the series Euphoria, The Idol borders on being a PG-13 experience. One of the other criticisms is that the show is shaming artists like Britney Spears. I would not say that; though Britney Spears is mentioned by one of Jocelyn’s handlers, it seems that The Idol’s story attempts to explain how Spears’ mental breakdown occurred in the first place. One of the most revealing lines of dialogue comes from Jocelyn’s record label producer Nikki Katz (Jane Adams): “Mental illness is sexy.” That tells me these characters who surround Jocelyn hardly care about her humanity.
After a comical scene of Jocelyn’s co-manager Chaim (Hank Azaria) locking an intimacy coordinator inside a bathroom, Jocelyn’s other manager Destiny (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and personal assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) show Chaim a lewd photo of Jocelyn that has gone viral on the internet. As Jocelyn moves on from the photo shoot to dance rehearsals, her handlers discuss how to handle the situation over the photo. They’re in disaster mode at that point because, to top off such a discovery, a journalist from Vanity Fair, Talia (Hari Nef), has just arrived to do an interview with Jocelyn. As these scenes happen, it’s revealed that a year prior, Jocelyn had a very public psychotic meltdown after her mother died. Her agency is attempting to get her back on track with a comeback song: “World Class Sinner.” When her handlers finally reveal to Jocelyn the lewd photo of her going viral on social media sites, she seemingly reacts with an indifferent response, possibly choosing to appear numb by such a betrayal with an unnamed sexual partner.
Wanting to get away, Jocelyn asks one of her backup dancers, Dyanne (Jennie Kim), about the nightclub she suggested during a dance rehearsal. At the nightclub, Jocelyn is called out by its owner for a dance, and this is when we meet Tedros, played by the series’ co-creator Abel “The Weekend” Tesfaye. And it’s obvious the man has an agenda with the music superstar Jocelyn. It’s not until the second episode that the audience fully grasps what this strange, cringeworthy man is all about. One of the unique things about this show is that every episode slowly peels away the mystery behind Tedros’ motivations rather than simply explaining everything he wants to do. It’s one of the many criticisms The Idol has received that I actually like. By the end of episode 1, I did not exactly know if Jocelyn should even trust Tedros: Will he help her find her true artistic self or lead her on a downward spiral of self-destruction?
Jocelyn later decides to invite Tedros to spend the evening at her home. She admits to him that her new song “World Class Sinner” sounds superficial and mediocre. She lets him listen to it. Tedros says, “It’s good, but I don’t believe you.” After a somewhat ritualistic, kinky sexual interaction between the two, Tedros and Jocelyn decides to remix the song. Jocelyn plays the new mix of “World Class Sinner” to her handlers the next day. Nikki, the record label executive, immediately berates Jocelyn, explaining to her about the time she promised she could still do a tour after her mother died but then ended up on a roof, naked and yelling about an alien invasion, resulting in the tour being canceled. Nikki hates the remix and wants to continue as planned with no changes to the music. Jocelyn is disheartened but decides to proceed.
During the production of the music video for Jocelyn’s comeback song “World Class Sinner,” it was revealed the reason why Jocelyn was over two hours late for the shoot was that the makeup team had to cover up self-inflicted cuts on her inner thighs. Also, Destiny tells Chaim that she can barely find any record of Tedros other than the fact he lived in Hawaii at one point. During the production of the video, Jocelyn apparently has a near mental breakdown after overexerting her performance and calls out to her dead mother.
It is later revealed the backup dancer Dyanne is part of Tedros’ group and did his bidding by bringing Jocelyn to his club. By the end of Episode 2, you’ll get the feeling that Tedros is a mix between Charles Manson and Keith Raniere (Leader of NXIVM) with a rattail for a haircut. In one of the strangest scenes at his closed club, Tedros demands one of his followers, Izaak (Moses Sumney), to perform dance moves in front of ladies while wearing a shock collar which Tedros would activate by remote at will.
There’s a lot of controversy over this HBO series, more than I think it deserves. It is unpleasant to many viewers, even though the most explicit scenes are off-screen — unlike the more popular show Euphoria — and considered cringeworthy based on how the characters talk and act. Many find that it is disgustingly expressing a form of misogynistic exploitation of Lily-Rose Depp as an actress. I don’t see it that way. Depp’s character, Jocelyn, is seemingly going from a corporate cult to a much smaller one trying to make it big by using her celebrity status.
Though the pace of The Idol might be a bit too slow for its own good, I’m enjoying it and look forward to experiencing Episodes 3 & 4.
New episodes premiere every Sunday night on HBO and stream on Max. Below is a preview of Episode 4.