Leering But Not Alluring
The Idol: Series Premiere, "Pop Tarts & Rat Tales"
There has been much discussion (some could say "blow-back") against Sam Levinson's new show, The Idol, of the last few weeks Online. This discussion started before the trailer for the show even debuted, when rumors about a troubled production (including the firing of Amy Seimetz) due to push and pull between the creative leads of the show. It was implied that Levinson, the creative voice behind this show and also the creator of Euphoria, wants to up the sex on the show, shifting it (as the former director put it) far more towards the male gaze. To make it "more leering", in effect. The trailer didn't help this matter, and, having now watched the premiere for the series, I can't say I disagree.
I liked Euphoria, finding it to be a challenging but well made show. It's about users and addicts, but the show finds a way to humanize it's targets. There are times where it does leer a little heavily, following its female teenage subjects around and staring while they get into sexual situations, but that series managed to stay grounded enough on the backs of its performances. There are any number of flaws with The Idol, as presented in its premiere episode, but what really struck me was that for all the leering this show does towards it's central pop idol, it never manages to make a compelling character for her (or the people around her). It's like Entourage it you made the characters of the ensemble somehow even less likable (and that's saying something).
The Idol is all about Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a pop idol who, over her short and crackling career, has managed to push herself to the brink of a total breakdown. She has people on all sides of her telling her what to do, what to say, who she should be. They hide things from her, sugarcoat things, lie to her. She can't find anyone honest or real, ad so she retreats into a life of drugs, sex, alcohol, and partying. This, of course, makes all the people that rely on her (read: control her) nervous about what she'll do next if they don't keep her locked down all the time.
While at a club, ever under the watch of her "best friend... and assistant" Leia (Rachel Sennott), Jocelyn meets club owner Tedros (Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye). The two dance on the floor and then slip away for drinks. Sparks fly between them, and soon she's inviting him over to her house for a night alone. He seems real, honest, like he might be the only one that would tell her the truth about herself and her music. But Tedros has a darkness to him, and Leia worries about what will happen if her friend (and employer) were to fully fall under his sway.
The core of the show is all about Jocelyn and, we have to assume, her steady decent into madness. That would a compelling narrative if the show managed to handle it with anything even approaching grace. Instead, it's a heavy-handed, bluntly written slog that keeps its leering gaze front and center. The show does itself no favors in its opening scenes, watching Jocelyn in a photo shoot for her new album, when she wants to show more skin than her "nudity rider" will allow, all while her gaggle of handlers deal with the blow-back of a picture circulating Online with Jocelyn clearly having male jizz on her face. Already the show states its purpose: it wants to get this woman naked and degrade her for the things she does.
Let's take the photo shoot; here Jocelyn is dressed in a silk robe and lingerie (an outfit she returns to for her evening with Tedros, which would be an interesting choice if the show called her out for the artifice of it... which it doesn't). As the photo shoot progresses, and she goes through a number of emotions (with the only one that seems really being when she almost breaks down crying), slowly she starts undressed, eventually showing nipple. At this point a handler from the record label steps in, clearly there to keep the photo shoot PG-13 rated, as per the contract rider. He makes it clear he's there for her, to keep her safe, but everyone on her team, for her on down, berates the man and yells at him for doing his job. Then they lock him in a closet so she can do whatever sexual things she wants. The show mocks the very idea of a sexual sensitivity coordinator (which, bear in mind, HBOThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. had to start putting on their sets after it was reported that Game of Thrones had a very unsafe set for its naked female performers).
What is the show trying to say here? It wants it to be a message about female empowerment, which the blunt text of the scene. The subtext is that she's using herself, and letting her body be used, and no one can stop this from happening... which would carry weight if the show didn't them punish the one person trying to keep things safe on set. And by making the sensitivity coordinator out to be the bad guy, it also creates a missions statement of "anything can happen" on the show, that all the sick and depraved needs of the audience will be fulfilled here as we watch this woman slowly crumble apart. That's... pretty sick, honestly.
And then, what does the show contrast this with? Selfies of the pop star with cum on her face. Here, the entourage is wracked up in knots trying to figure out what to do. They dismiss it as harmless fun, as female empowerment, as some sick prank from person that took the photo and spread it Online And yet, it plays back to that message of degrading the girl. She's allowed to use her body and push her limits so long as it doesn't hurt their pay days. That would also be something the show could actually use as a point to then analyze the entourage... except they all disappear from the episode after this. There's no holding them accountable for the way they treat this starlet in this episode. It all just gets brushed away so she can find a scuzzy club promoter and get into some kinky sex with it.
A big issue here is that there isn't really a plot line for this episode. I likened this show to Entourage but with less tact, and that's a fair comparison. Say what you will about Entourage -- it, too, descended eventually into a leering, self-congratulatory show, although it at least took time to get there -- the the show was episodic by nature. It understood that each episode had to tell a story, a conclusive beginning, middle, and end, so that it could hold its characters accountable, at least in the moment. There's none of that here on The Idol as there's no lessons learned or character realizations by episode end. It's a serialized show that vaguely promises, "hey, this is going somewhere," but doesn't deliver in its premiere episode a compelling single story to latch onto.
That's a big struggle for me with this show. I need to see something akin to growth or awareness for the characters or, well, anything. I need a an ending that doesn't just promise, "the journey is the destination, my dude." Euphoria, for all its serialized conventions, gave you smaller stories in the moment -- Rue nearly overdosing and realizing she had to get clean, Jules realizing a man she slept with was a local leader in the community, which causes tension between them that quickly comes to a head -- that then allowed each episode to feel like a complete thought. When a series buys too hard into it's season-long (or, worse, series-long) story then it runs the risk of never giving you a complete tale at any moment, and that can be exhausting for the audience (see also: Game of Thrones for another bad example of this trend).
But then maybe it could work if the acting were more compelling. In this episode we get a bunch of hangers on -- Troye Sivan as Xander, Jocelyn's creative director; Jane Adams as Nikki Katz, a record label executive; Jennie Ruby Jane as Dyanne, Jocelyn’s backup dancer; Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Destiny, Jocelyn's co-manager; Dan Levy as Benjamin, Jocelyn's publicist; Hank Azaria as Chaim, Jocelyn's co-manager -- but none of them ever come into view as real characters. They're stock agents, people spouting lines (sometimes in a terrible accent, as in the case of Azaria), but without any real character behind their dialogue. This is made worse by an, at times, terrible performance from Depp. I think the star is trying to play her as a false front, a woman that never lets any of her reality out into the world. The moments where the mask slips and we see some real tragedy actually point to this, and they're the moments when her character come through... but it's hard to tell if that's real or not. Everything about the character is artifice and Deep seems out of her depths conveying all the sides of this pop idol.
When it comes to the Weeknd, though, I have to wonder what he was thinking being a part of this show. Tesfaye is not only a co-lead on the show but he's also a creative voice, producer, and c0-creator for the series. And yet his actual performance is terrible. He comes across as a scuzzy man leering at a young woman, a dude one step away from dealing meth in his own club while the young junkies do whatever he says in the backroom. If this was supposed to be a star-making turn for the multiple-award winning musical artist, I don't see it here. Whatever he wanted from this show, all it does is make him look like a sketchy old man lusting after young flesh while he tries to be cool. It's awful.
But then the same could be said about this series. Whatever grand ideas it has about speaking truth to power about the music industry -- about how it sucks in young girls, chews them out as it sucks every dollar it can make off of them, and then spits them out hollowed, drug addles wrecks -- that doesn't come across in the actual premiere (and it's hard to see how it could do it in the actual series either). This show feels like part of the problem, not a part of the solution, and it's hard to want to watch a show that pretends to be against the sexualization and abuse of these girls when it's just doing the same thing to its central character.