‘The Idol’: Sam Levinson and The Weeknd Explain How the First Episode Establishes a Pop Culture Monster

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for the first episode of “The Idol.”]

After setting the internet ablaze for months, “The Idol” finally premiered its first of five episodes on HBO Sunday night, establishing the stakes of a lurid show business saga certain to provoke strong reactions all the way through.

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The news cycle around the show, co-created by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, Reza Fahim, and “Euphoria” co-creator Sam Levinson, has been as messy as the life of the pop star at its center: Originally directed as a dreamlike odyssey by “The Girlfriend Experience” showrunner Amy Seimetz, the unfinished version of “The Idol” was canned by Tesfaye and rebooted as a whole new project almost exactly one year ago with Levinson at the helm. While it remains to be seen whether the revision was worth the effort, the premiere makes it clear that any allegations about Tesfaye’s off-screen antics pale in comparison to the eerie villain he portrays in the show.

The first episode (one of two previewed at the Cannes Film Festival last week) sets the stage for a disturbing psychological thriller that doubles as a satire of the music industry. It introduces Lily Rose-Depp’s troubled pop star Joslyn and her anxiety-riddled entourage, ending with the introduction of Tesfaye’s cultish nightclub owner Tedros, who seduces the vulnerable celebrity and begins to infiltrate her world.

However viewers react to it, the stakes of “The Idol” are just getting started. Given Levinson’s complicated reputation from his three-season run on “Euphoria,” questions about the perspective of the show have surrounded it even before reports surfaced about crewmembers feeling uncomfortable with its sexualized plot. Is “The Idol” an exploitive look at a scantily-clad woman at the mercy of the male gaze — or a ruthless indictment of the same thing?

So far, the answer appears to be yes and yes: “The Idol” bathes in contradictions. While Tesfaye wanted to play the bad guy, that doesn’t exactly mean he endorses the character.

At a Cannes press conference, Tesfaye said that Joslyn was more a reflection of his personal experiences in the industry than the anti-hero he portrays. “I feel very fortunate to have made some of the right decisions in my life,” he said. “Joslyn is almost like an alternate reality if I’d made some of the wrong choices in my life. It’s almost like me trying to show the world or teach young artists to make the right decisions, subconsciously, maybe.”

That sort of histrionic statement is typical of the extremes that surround “The Idol” at every turn. It remains to be seen just how much the show can deliver educational value, but it certainly establishes the paradoxes of modern day stardom as a cautionary tale. Still mourning the death of her mother one year earlier and grappling with the reverberations of a mental illness, Joslyn is in a state of perpetual vulnerability.

However, the show begins with the character seemingly empowered by her sexuality rather than victimized by it. An opening shot from a photo shoot at her mansion finds Joslyn vamping for the camera and revealing her breasts, much to the consternation of an intimacy coordinator on the set. (He’s ultimately trapped in a bathroom to silence his concerns by Joslyn’s rascally agent, played by Hank Azaria.) At a Cannes press conference, Rose-Depp said that the opening shot was meant to signal the essence of the character’s personality. “She’s a born and bred performer,” she said. “The character physically mirrors the bareness that we see in her emotionally.”

Lily-Rose Depp in "The Idol"
Lily-Rose Depp in “The Idol”screenshot/HBO

Speculation around the show centered on the idea that Joslyn was inspired by Britney Spears, and Spears does get a shoutout in the pilot when a member of Joslyn’s team compares her to the real-life singer. However, at the same Cannes press conference, Levinson denied that Spears influenced the show. “The reference to Britney in the pilot is more of a publicist spinning and trying to draw connections and correlations so that the press will write about it kindly,” he said. “We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star. We’re looking at how the world perceives pop stars and the pressure it puts on that individual.”

As for Tedros, who comes over to Joslyn’s home for a sultry date night at the end of the episode, Tesfaye said he thought of the character in classic movie monster terms. “The inspiration is Dracula,” he said. “He’s luring the girl.” A dramatic nighttime moment towards the end of the episode, which finds the gates of Joslyn’s apartment opening to reveal Tedros standing at the center of the frame, was meant to elicit a campy effect. During the Cannes premiere, Tesfaye said, “I couldn’t tell if everyone in the theater was laughing, because me, Sam, and Lily were laughing so hard.”

Levinson echoed Tesfaye’s own impression of the character as someone who wishes he could be more like the real musician who plays him. The premiere shows how Tedros seduces Joslyn and begins to influence her music by making her believe that he has the solution to her creative crisis. Of course, it’s just a ploy for his own entourage to infiltrate her existence, as the next episode will make clear. “I thought, ‘What if this character had all of the dreams that Abel has, all of the vision that he has about culture, but what if he had none of the talent?'” Levinson said. ” I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be for him and the darkness that would create inside of him…and so it forces him to find a puppet, so to speak.”

Tedros isn’t the only questionable character swirling around Joslyn in the first episode. In addition to Azaria, the show sketches out some of the other figures who influence her decisions, including a foul-mouthed record label executive Nikki (Jane Adams), a ruthless Live Nation boss (Eli Roth), her co-manager (Da’Vine Joy), and her longtime friend-turned-assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott). The episode shows how they contend with a crisis in real-time, when a photo leaks to the internet showing Joslyn with her face covered in semen. “There are people that you meet in this business that are passionate about the people they represent and fighting for them and want to protect them,” Levinson said. “What they’re trying to manage is someone who’s fragile in a lot of ways.”

At the Cannes press conference, Adams agreed. “To me, it’s almost like a family dynamic,” she said. “They’re trying so hard to protect her but my character is [also] concerned about other things.” Azaria echoed that perception as it pertained to his own character. “If he were really protective of her, he’d take her out of all that,” he said.

The next episode of “The Idol” will further demonstrate the way that Tedros worms his way into Joslyn’s life as her circle of trust grows more concerned. “Have I encountered anyone like Tedros? I don’t fucking think so,” Tesfaye said at Cannes. Sitting by his side, Levinson replied, “If you had, I don’t think you’d be here.”

As “The Idol” continues to unfold in the coming weeks, don’t expect Levinson to participate in the evolving discourse. Reached by email a few days before the premiere, he told IndieWire, “I’m thinking I’m going to let the show speak for itself.”

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