There’s a lot that’s wrong with The Idol.
HBO’s latest Sunday slot, co-created by Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd), examines fame and Hollywood’s sordid underbelly through the tumultuous life of fictional pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp).
At the beginning of The Idol‘s five-episode run, she’s on the cusp of the next phase of her career, set to release new single “World Class Sinner” ahead of a national tour — a high stakes endeavor considering her last tour was canceled. As she’s struggling to hit choreography and avoid online scandals while managing her grief, she’s falling in love with a club owner-turned-cult leader called Tedros (played by Tesfaye), the incendiary source of the show’s many, many fucked up moments. And at the end of the season, she’s centre stage in SoFi Stadium, performing to her thousands of screaming fans.
However, despite being a show about a pop star (and sporadically, an examination of the music industry and its power players), The Idol mainly focuses on Tedros and Jocelyn’s burgeoning relationship, unraveling their submissive/dominant dynamic and contouring the plot to fit the question of who’s really in charge here. There’s a lot of issues with The Idol‘s pacing, story, and that final twist, but one of the show’s biggest pitfalls is its lack of world building — namely showing us why the hell Jocelyn’s famous to begin with.
Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO
How did Jocelyn become a pop star?
Jocelyn’s introduced to us in the series as the idol of her generation, packing swarms of fans under her belt and boasting a pop star status akin to Britney Spears — she’s literally compared to Britney in the first episode. But we know absolutely nothing about the career or music that made her famous. In fact, by the end of the show, we know more about Jocelyn’s kinks than we do her music career. While I understand there might be some meta commentary there, we might not know who our favorite pop stars are behind closed doors, but we still know why they’re famous.
At its core, The Idol is a show about Jocelyn, but there’s no exposition provided to give her character a depth that would have made the show far more interesting. All we know about Jocelyn’s career is that she found fame on a tween show, à la Disney Channel, where she starred alongside her best friend Xander (Troye Sivan). She has a makeup line. And her favorite song that she wrote herself is called “Daybreak,” from her second album, but we don’t even get to listen to it.
What music has Jocelyn actually released?
All we’re allowed to hear are her scrapped single “World Class Sinner” (a bop I might add), and the new songs she produces with Tedros and the real Mike Dean (The Weeknd’s actual producer). Besides that, and the snippets we hear from Tedros’ “family” of artists including Sivan and Moses Sumney, The Idol‘s soundtrack is mainly filled with new songs by The Weeknd — also bops — but not enough of Jocelyn’s back catalogue. I’m not asking for her entire discography, but it’s wild to me that The Idol was hellbent on selling us a pop star without showing us any of the tangible evidence that she’s been topping charts for years by this point.
More of this please!!!
Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO
Part of the joy of being a music fan, and pop music itself, is the different eras that come with each album. Whether it’s Beyoncé’s Renaissance era, Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz era, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener era, Britney Spears’ Blackout era, or the most obvious, Taylor Swift’s many eras, every pop star goes through different stages of their artistry, and it’s what builds their fandom. Jocelyn is the titular idol (a term borrowed from the K-pop industry with its own idols and their eras) and yet, we never really find out about her music beyond her Tedros era.
A glance back into Jocelyn’s past success would have been far more interesting for The Idol to dig into, even if briefly through set details, than whatever the hell happened in these five episodes. Think of the rewards of seeing Jocelyn’s old album covers, snippets of her past music videos, or some hint of her having performed live before. If you can fit a giant Prince photo in Jocelyn’s enormous mansion, you can install a couple of presumably gold records.
So, why is Jocelyn actually famous? The Idol leaves us in the dark.
Many questions are left in the dust after The Idol’s finale, and they’re not unimportant in an examination of fame, women in music, and exploitation in entertainment. Why does Jocelyn love music? What is it about her that makes millions love her? How has her career looked so far? These questions are the bare minimum expectations you’d wish would be answered in a show about a pop star. In fact, even if The Idol didn’t want to get too deep into Jocelyn’s background, where the hell was the pop music? Where was her music? How is she going on tour with only three new singles? While I appreciate that The Idol got into how well Jocelyn knows how to play the mainstream music industry’s game, we never saw enough of her manipulation and manufacturing by that same industry.
In a show desperate to provide commentary on stardom, The Idol failed at its simplest task — giving us a pop star. I still don’t know why Jocelyn is as famous as she is, and it’s a shame to think about what could have been if we just had less Tedros and more tunes.
How to watch: The Idol is now streaming on Max(opens in a new tab).