‘The Idol’ Episode 2 Throws Good Money After Bad

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Idol” Episode 2, “Double Fantasy.”]

Nikki (Jane Adams) doesn’t give the impression she likes to be “summoned.” Wearily walking through her client’s mansion, passing two framed records that are just lying against the barren wall, Nikki plops down next to her fellow handlers and immediately starts complaining: Why would Jocelyn (Lily Rose-Depp) change her single? “What about the sound we created for her?” Her mom’s dead? Who cares! “Mothers die.”

Meanwhile, Jocelyn is waiting upstairs. Nervous over the remix she made with Tedros Tedros (Able “The Weeknd” Tesfaye), she texts him, looking for a little support before facing the jackals downstairs. “Tried u earlier,” she types. “Call u after,” she concedes.

The version of “World Class Sinner” her team hears is hardly high-art. Extra breathy and with a jagged melody, it’s less suited for a car stereo or a night club than to privately play while pleasuring yourself — which is exactly what Jocelyn does once management leaves. But in the moment, it’s no surprise her unsuitable song is met with silence. What are four pseudo-adults supposed to say when a tune meant to relaunch a pop star’s career has been twisted into a fantasy mix for one listener and one listener only? (No, I do not believe even Tedros Tedros legitimately likes this cut.)

Nikki knows what to say. After dropping a bunch of forced exposition about Jocelyn’s recent breakdown, she shouts, “You’re going to sit here and tell me, ‘It’s not me. I don’t like it’? Well, that’s too bad. It’s too fucking late. That train has left the station, and whether you like it or not, you are going for that ride!”

From there, we see what “the ride” will do to Jocelyn. She doesn’t touch the healthy meal prepared by her private chef. She doesn’t react when she scrolls past the leaked photo of her on Twitter. She tunes out of production meetings and combs her hair with the force of a stylist from Bagglyport. When it’s time to perform — to record the music video of the song she hates — she can’t stay focused. Between getting negged by Tedros Tedros and mourning her mom’s death (not to mention the death of her career), Jocelyn is emotionally drained and physically falling apart — all for a single she doesn’t believe in and people she’s starting to distrust.

It’s obvious how anyone in such a state could fall victim to a parasite like Tedros Tedros, but where “Double Fantasy” falls apart isn’t in convincing us of Jocelyn’s vulnerability; it’s in convincing us to care. No one wants Jocelyn to suffer. No one wants to see people exploited and abused, but it’s clear that’s what we’re being asked to watch anyway.

“The Idol,” after two episodes, is selling itself as a trainwreck. It’s asking the audience to stare in stupefied horror (with the occasional uncomfortable giggle) as this woman gets wrecked — first by an industry eager to work her to the bone, then by a club owner ready to prey on her emotions. Whether that’s to make a point about how fans treat pop stars, or how Hollywood creates them, or something else entirely is still too vague to pin down. All that’s evident is the ride she’s on ends up nowhere good — certainly not for Jocelyn, and so far, not for viewers either.

Jane Adams in “The Idol”Eddy Chen

Just look at Nikki. It seems like she’s meant to be a villain equal to Tedros Tedros (whose full-name is one of the dullest, dumbest creative choices yet), but she’s unquestionably the lesser of two evils. “The Idol” loves blunt metaphors, and it’s clear from the episodic structure and all the cross-cutting that writer-director Sam Levinson wants to juxtapose what Nikki is doing to Jocelyn against what Tedros Tedros is doing to her. One is brazen, the other withholding; one is always hovering, the other never there when he’s needed; one is emotionally cold, the other way too hot. But aside from Tesfaye’s charisma-free portrayal working against that last contradiction, Episode 2 also works against its own comparison.

Don’t get me wrong: Nikki is an awful human being. She’s still pissed at Jocelyn for the refunded concert tickets and canceled tour. She has no compassion for a daughter in mourning. Today, she mocks Jocelyn’s mental health struggles, when yesterday she was exploiting them for a “sexy” photoshoot. Tomorrow, she may drop Jocelyn altogether — for Dyanne, the “better” dancer. Nikki is a Bad Person™ and there’s so much time and effort devoted to painting her that way, so… why am I on her side this week?

One simple reason is I understand where she’s coming from. Nikki may be operating out of her own self-interest, but she’s still offering Jocelyn the safest path forward. Rather than risk ruin on an unlistenable remix, she pushes for the easy hit. Yes, the new cut of “World Class Sinner” is what the pop star thinks she likes right now, but it’s not good music. That’s evident just from listening to it, and it’s even more evident when taking into account her rat-tailed collaborator. The original cut is also not good, and Nikki knows that, but she also knows it will sell. It will rack up plays and prop up an album filled with “giant fucking big-titted hits.” Success will take the pressure off Jocelyn, which in turn, will help Jocelyn recover.

Time off isn’t an option for Jocelyn right now, and “The Idol” could have used Episode 2’s story to blame Nikki for running the pop star ragged. But it doesn’t. The disastrous music video shoot is largely framed as Jocelyn’s fault. She’s too much of a perfectionist and too focused on the wrong things. “World Class Sinner” is a bad song, and the video is a bad idea. (Dancing at a strip club? That’s it? That’s the whole plan?) No matter how well Jocelyn moves, she can’t make sweet lemonade from spoiled lemons, and Nikki seems to know that. She’s fine with the early takes and ready to wrap well before Jocelyn. She knows spending any more time on this is just throwing good money after bad.

Did you see the puppets in Tedros Tedros’ house, or were you too distracted by Isaac (Moses Sumney) thrusting on command? It doesn’t really matter, since the club owner’s behavior is already so controlling, but that scene pops up right after Jocelyn’s bloody feet force the video shoot to take a break. Had Nikki (or anyone else, really) been demanding she keep going, to push through the pain, then all that time spent watching her suffer may have served a purpose. There would’ve been telling parallels between Hollywood’s abuse of Jocelyn and Tedros Tedros’ abuse of Jocelyn. But as it stands, the abuse appears rooted within the star herself, and any blame or narrative conflict falls by the wayside.

Would Jocelyn be better off without Nikki and Tedros Tedros? Absolutely. Might “The Idol” make that argument in coming weeks? Maybe, but it’s hard to say. For now, we’re just watching a woman get beaten down at work and at home. How much more can she take? And how much longer can we be expected to stare at the trainwreck?

Grade: D+

“The Idol” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max.

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