What you need to know
“The Idol” contains intense scenes of kinky sex and abuse between the star Jocelyn and club owner Tedros, evoking a one-sided portrayal of the entertainment industry as peculiarly manipulative and misogynistic.
Reza Fahim, Sam Levinson, and Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd)’s five-part miniseries The Idol, with Levinson directing and responsible for the teleplay, vindicates my general principle to not watch television. But not for the reasons many critics gave after watching the first two episodes at Cannes. No, my revulsion goes much deeper than that.
Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is a Britney Spears-level pop star who has recently suffered a psychotic break after the death of her mother. Under pressure for a comeback and in a creative rut, she falls under the spell of nightclub owner Tedros Tedros (Tesfaye), a rat-tailed douche whose “rape-y” vibes turn Jocelyn on. This is a pop star and sex icon high on her own supply, and it’s LA, so the flimsy excuses for clothing that she wears are justified. But even if it weren’t — so what? Most of the time she’s in her own house, so she can wear (or not) whatever she wants, and all the brouhaha just shows how deep Puritanism runs in American culture.
By the end of episode one, we see that Jocelyn runs on (lightly) kinky sex, and that Tedros can help channel that spark into her songwriting. Tedros doesn’t travel alone, however, and episode two introduces us to his underdressed “family” of singers, each incredibly talented in a different genre. (It should be noted that Suzanna Son’s character was discovered by Tedros before she came of age. Hey Levinson: Ew.) Through conversations with them, Jocelyn discovers that Tedros basically runs an art monster cult, in which his followers obey him unreservedly in order not to miss any artworthy experience — and all experience could be artworthy. Okay, we have an actual live issue here, not bad.
Then we get to episode three, and all hell breaks loose. Jocelyn’s mother was physically abusive? She feels lost without that motivation? And Tedros wants to reenact that abuse to remotivate her? Listen: Therapeutic reenactment of trauma is a real thing that works for some people, but only because it’s done with trusted partners, allowing the subject to reclaim a sense of agency from a situation in which they felt they had none. But everything in this passage was dragged out of Jocelyn almost against her will, with some of her team verbally trying to stop Tedros. No matter how kinky their sex, it’s not a safe enough space, and pretending it is can be dangerously misinformative.
Lest anyone doubt Tedros’s (lack of) virtue, episode four has him using a shock collar to torture into obedience an accusation-hurling Xander, Jocelyn’s creative director, childhood friend, and former pop singer himself (played magnetically by Troye Sivan). This is the narratively weakest episode, and one can feel the gears rotating into place for the finale. Nothing concludes by the end of this one. Fascinatingly, the end credits reveal that the showrunners hired two adult film actors (Michael Boston and Vanessa Sky) to portray the first moments of an erotic encounter in Jocelyn’s swimming pool, a shot that takes literally one second. Realism!
If Levinson thought a shock in the finale could paper over its lack of coherence, he was dead wrong. Herein is it revealed that the stuff Xander was spewing about Jocelyn and her mother in the previous episode, retracting which was the sign of obedience Tedros was torturing him for, was all true: that Jocelyn and her mother were and are conniving Machiavellians in an industry full of them, and that Jocelyn had long ago accepted the abuse. Given Depp’s performance throughout and the plot lines presented in the first three episodes, it makes no sense. (Perhaps this is where the infamous rewrites started.) The only coherence is thematic, as it ties into the other machinating industry players: Jocelyn’s managers Chaim (Hank Azaria) and Destiny (Da’Vine Joy Randolph; there are a lot of singers in this thing) connive for her, and label executive Nikki (a gloriously unhinged Jane Adams), at Jocelyn’s lowest point, offers her comeback single to one of her backup dancers instead. That dancer is Dyanne, a two-time traitor played deliciously by Jennie of BLACKPINK. Yet her comeuppance brings us no joy, because it’s just the ruthless, ever grinding industry machine finally gobbling her up and putting Jocelyn back on top. When your conclusion is that everyone’s equally bad (including Xander, who continues following Tedros for the sake of his career), it obviates every interesting point that goes before. I can’t even fault the ending for being misogynistic, as it’s just another flavor of cynicism.
This cynicism kills the one point of sanity in the show: Leia (Rachel Sennott), who’s Jocelyn’s assistant and best friend. She dutifully protests every bad idea from the very beginning to the very end (she resigns, of course), but since she’s played with Sennott’s uproarious comedic timing and line readings, no one takes her seriously. By making her the foil, the show rationalizes the skewed worldview of everyone else. And by pretending to take some issues seriously, it suckers earnest viewers into caring about, ultimately, a five-hour sinkhole.
Also, the soundtrack is bad, and the 35mm film doesn’t fit.
The Idol is streaming.
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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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