‘The Idol’ Is About the Quest for Perfection. Why Is It So Flawed?

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers from the second episode of HBO’s “The Idol,” titled “Double Fantasy,” now streaming on Max.

On “The Idol,” Jocelyn just wants to be perfect. If only the show around her had such clarity of vision.

As played by Lily-Rose Depp, the pop star Jocelyn spends part of the series’ second episode pushing herself through endless retakes of a music video shoot — long past the point at which the thing seems as good as it’ll ever be — in order to attain the crispness and clarity that lie just out of reach in her mind. Those sequences, with Aronofsky-movie-ready shots of bloody feet and the intriguing chatter among Jocelyn underlings that had been a highlight of the show’s first episode, create, for a time, a sense of Jocelyn’s reality, and what she has at stake.

The credibility problems of “The Idol,” such as they are, come through in the episode’s second half. We are given ample, oftentimes overly blunt, evidence as to why Jocelyn might want a reset. (She hates her own music, and, in references that at times can feel crowbarred into the script, is in a state of mourning for her late mother.) And that she chooses the Weeknd’s Tedros comes as no surprise. She doesn’t really feel like a real pop star, so why not go with someone who doesn’t really feel like a real Svengali? Both Jocelyn and Tedros end up feeling like small-timers: Understandable for a relatively new actress doing her best to play a pop star who’s more “editorial comment on Britney Spears” than real person, surprising for a guy who once played the Super Bowl.

In a state of aggrievement after her music-video shoot falls apart, Jocelyn cedes control to Tedros, whom she invites to her home after the shooting day and who issues a series of commands as Jocelyn works herself over in bed. (Previously in the episode, Jocelyn, addicted to Tedros’ control, had held a rocks glass of ice against her crotch while choking herself listening to her music; we’re told that the glass shattered into her thighs, causing injury.) There’s a germ of an idea at least in the treatment of Jocelyn and Tedros’ weird hang: Having failed to gain power in her career, Jocelyn is giving up, and going to try to fully inhabit the role of puppet for a night. She’s pursuing a different sort of perfection, running after an optimized and hyper-driven sex with a guy who — as written, if not as diffidently performed — knows what he wants. That the Weeknd, a credited co-creator of this series along with Sam Levinson, is vastly more compelling issuing come-ons through subtext in his music than he is barking them as an actor is one issue this show faces. Another is that the veil of influences through which we’re viewing it all comes to feel less than the sum of its parts.

“The Idol,” merging the slickness of the guy who sang “Blinding Lights” and the flair for drama of the creator of “Euphoria,” can feel like the monkey’s paw wish of a cultural-influencer class that has, for the past few years, been talking a lot about how fun 1980s erotic thrillers were. It seems custom-built to deliver a hollow, vacuous titillation, drawing its tone and mood from the high-gloss films of Brian De Palma and the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, updating them only inasmuch as the subject is now tabloid culture rather than glossy-magazine culture, and “late capitalism” rather than, you know, capitalism. Levinson, specifically, has done pastichey tone-poetry on TV before to commercial and creative success: On “Euphoria,” maximalism is cleverly deployed, as characters feel as though each new development is the end of their world, and the show responds in kind. Here, Levinson is laser-focused on a scuzzy, gnarly sort of pleasure, on delivering jolts of serotonin through the alternating deployment of supreme beauty and of profound ugliness.

Which is to say that “The Idol” is immature, and in a different way than Zendaya’s and Sydney Sweeney’s “Euphoria” characters are. I make the comparison to Ellis — the author of classic L.A.-as-hellscape novels like “Less Than Zero” — advisedly: Levinson is, at least in the work he produces, a bit of a brat. Like a pop singer questing for a way to startle her audience anew, or like a mastermind who semi-secretly doesn’t actually have good ideas, he goes for the biggest and brashest move he can, every time.

All of which makes “The Idol,” so far, somewhat creepily unified as a piece of work. There seems no doubt that it is the product of a forcefully deployed vision. (It deserves comparison to fictional singer Jocelyn’s single “World Class Sinner,” a beautifully produced song with lyrics so banally stupid that the series’ contempt for its subject gleams through like a knife, or like shattered glass.) This clarity of purpose and intention — to do something dumb, in a dumb way, for our attention — is (really!) not without its diversions. But it’s a bit frustrating to watch a show so plainly and plaintively depict the quest towards perfection in a way that seems so clumsily unable to get to “consistently pretty good.” There are huge bright spots in the series: Moments of anguish from Depp, who shows real promise; every line Jane Adams delivers; the fundamental sense of frustration that overtakes a set on take 10. If Sam Levinson can conjure that last thing, why does it feel like so much of the rest of his show never made it past take one?

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