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HBO's 'The Idol' offers stylish yet oddly inert debut episode

Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn.
HBO
Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn.

The big questions about HBO's The Idol weren't quite answered by its super-stylish, yet oddly inert opening episode Sunday.

The series, starring Lily-Rose Depp as a pop star who has come through a mental health crisis and gets seduced by a hipster club owner/self-help guru/cult leader played by Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye, drew savage reviews after two episodes debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in France last month.

And a Rolling Stone expose suggesting the show's producers amped up the nudity and sex to a disturbing degree, turning it into a toxic, male-oriented fantasy, raised concerns about what story, exactly, The Idol was going to tell.

To be honest, there are moments in Sunday's episode which seem close to that mark. In one scene, Depp's character, Jocelyn, pleasures herself while choking herself; in another, after a friend tells her Tesfaye's character Tedros has a "rapey" vibe, the pop star says "I kinda like that about him."

Of course, there may be women who feel that way about humiliation, pain and sex. But it also feels a lot like the male gaze in action — what a roomful of guys might think a woman's reaction would be, rather than a choice that feels authentic.

A story that's rarely subtle

Euphoria creator Sam Levinson is a co-creator and executive producer of The Idol -- with Tesfaye and Reza Fahim — while also directing and writing the episodes. So it's no surprise that some moments in The Idol recall the steamy, sordid vibe Euphoria's party scenes conjured so well — including a sequence in Tedros' club where he seduces Jocelyn to the pulsing beat of Madonna's Like a Virgin (the episode also features the pop star's handlers comparing her to Britney Spears, in case viewers didn't catch the incredibly obvious comparisons to real-life, unpredictable blonde divas).

Abel Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp.
/ HBO
/
HBO
Abel Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp.

"Pop music is like the ultimate Trojan Horse," Tedros tells Jocelyn, unleashing one of a great many lines in The Idol that sound profound but kinda aren't.

What may be most surprising about The Idol's debut is how little actually happens in the first episode. The narrow scope of the action reveals a story stuck in a claustrophobic bubble, offering bursts of nudity and sex to distract from how little is actually happening onscreen.

This is a show that dispenses with subtlety, at least in the first episode. Jocelyn's handlers — including Hank Azaria and Dan Levy — are as vulgar, focused on commerce and oblivious to their client's pain, as you would expect, even as they try to gauge how she'll react to news that an explicitly sexual picture of her is public and trending on Twitter.

(Her eventual reaction is so blasé it doesn't make much sense, especially when she frets later about whether her new single is so pandering it makes her look bad. Isn't revenge porn worse, especially for a pop superstar?).

Every scene laboriously ladles out hunks of backstory. Jocelyn is aiming for a comeback after what is described as a "nervous breakdown," possibly brought on by the death of her mother. But the pop star hates the new single her handlers are pushing, feels worn out and unenthusiastic about her work and is ripe for seduction by a dangerous man her assistant/best friend derisively calls "rat tail club guy."

Some may focus on the bizarrely erotic scene that closes the first episode, where Tedros covers Jocelyn's head with her robe, whips out a knife and cuts a hole in it where her mouth is (like I said, this show is not subtle). But that moment seems so cartoonishly provocative, that criticizing it feels like playing into the producers' hands — spreading word about the show by fixating on a moment that's mostly undercut by awkward storytelling.

Larger concerns unanswered

Still, the larger concerns about The Idol — is it an exploitive male fantasy posing as an empowerment tale, or an ode to power, wealth and fame masquerading as a critique of it — are tough to judge from the first episode. Put simply, not enough happens to truly know where this story is headed just yet.

What is obvious: The inventive and surprising storytelling that made Euphoria so special is nowhere to be seen here. And it will take a heaping helping of that small screen magic to salvage the next five episodes of this too-predictable story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.