’Tis a telling conundrum that nearly every supporting character in The Idol is more compelling than Tedros Tedros, the club owner whose “rape-y” vibe is supposedly so magnetizing to erratic pop star Jocelyn. The scenes in which Tedros does not appear in episode 2, “Double Fantasy,” have a dull glimmer of promise; watching, you can almost believe Lily Rose-Depp’s Joss might possess a warped facsimile of the Britney Factor. But the moment Tedros appears on screen, the Sam Levinson project phases into something painful and repellant—not in the “twisted” way Levinson and co-creator Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye hoped for, but in a manner that feels almost comically ill-conceived.
The episode begins with Jocelyn playing her new “World Class Sinner” remix—featuring heavy panting à la Tedros—for her team. It’s terrible. They don’t like it, and if they do, they don’t dare interrupt label manager Nikki, who frankly doesn’t care that Jocelyn’s mom died a year ago. Not an excuse! “People die, all the time. Everybody dies.” Womp womp. Jocelyn’s sad face prompts Nikki to launch into a blatantly transparent exposition dump, in which she recounts the former “babbling up on the roof, talking to things in outer fuckin’ space” after her mother got sick.
Of course, her real concern is the “millions” they spent canceling tour stops, refunding tickets, and pairing Jocelyn with producers to make her some hits. The whole diatribe is gross, and not in a fun, this-will-become-a-meme sort of way. Yet I’d rather watch another half hour of Nikki giving elementary-school backstory than have to sit through what we endure with Tedros.
But Tedros is exactly whom Jocelyn calls after the verbal abuse from Nikki, and as he gets his rat tail braided in his club, we can see he’s manipulating and lying to her. (As if we didn’t already know this from … everything about him.) They agree to meet up after Joss finishes shooting her music video. By way of pep talk, he assures her she should be “surrounded by people who believe in you, who trust your vision.”
The problem is that Jocelyn doesn’t seem to have a vision, only a vague understanding that, when Tedros slides a whiskey glass between her legs, she makes uncomfortable noises that (he thinks) belong on an EP. She pays no attention to the team she already has as they plan the set for her music video. Shockingly, this proves to be an issue when she arrives for production and hates everything about it.
“It’s just like—it’s not really what I imagined,” she tells Troye Sivan’s Xander. “I just feel like it’s really ironic. Like, in a way that, like, the fans are not gonna understand.” This piece of dialogue could easily be the tagline for The Idol itself.
Shooting the music video is hell. Jocelyn starts and stops over and over again, insistent that something is wrong but unsure what, precisely, that might be. She has cuts between her thighs from the whiskey glass, and her feet are bleeding from dancing. She starts sobbing and calling for her mother. Oh, and the strippers are “out-femming her,” according to great pop-culture writer Talia Hirsch. Jocelyn’s team urges and coaxes and prods her to continue, and it’s obvious they don’t care about her as a human being, but why is that information presented to us as if it’s revealing? We already know Jocelyn’s meant to remind us of Britney Spears and pop stars like her. The connections are so obvious as to become obtuse. So what does The Idol think it’s saying, and why does it feel so catastrophically at odds with what we’re actually watching?
Nikki, growing impatient, decides she needs a golden parachute in the form of Dyanne, one of Jocelyn’s back-up dancers. Turns out Dyanne can sing, so Nikki shuttles her into a recording studio to lay down a version of “World Class Sinner” sans bass-heavy breathing. What we don’t confirm until later—but easily could have deduced—is that Dyanne is under Tedros’ employ. Ensnaring Nikki and furthering Jocelyn’s spiral was part of a setup.
Meanwhile, we cut to Tedros himself. Whatever reserves of optimism I had for this show evaporated with the sight of Tesfaye electro-shocking singer/dancer Izaak (Moses Sumney) to make him dance. “You’re not a human, Izaak,” Tedros tells him. “You’re a fuckin’ star.” This depraved scene is about as inconspicuous in its intentions as having a creepy club owner sport a rat tail; it doesn’t tell us anything about Tedros that we didn’t already suspect. It exists purely to revel in its own ungodliness, an artistic instinct that’s not just uninspired but irresponsible.
Things get worse from there. Jocelyn, desperate because she’s tanking “all I have” (i.e. her career), invites Tedros and his friends over to decompress via hard liquor, drugs, and skinny-dipping. A sexy saxophone that sounds conjured from an SNL skit plays over the encounter, and Jocelyn and Tedros escape to her bedroom while Leia and Izaak find her own. Tesfaye’s dirty talk here is wooden, antithetical to his supposed allure. Nothing in this sex scene between Tesfaye and Depp works in the way it’s intended to, even if Levinson’s only purpose here is to inspire disbelief. How could this girl fall for this guy?! But dehumanization of this kind isn’t difficult to comprehend. It’s just depressing.
“Double Fantasy” ends with Jocelyn, Leia, Izaak, Tedros and newcomer Chloe (Suzanna Son) around the piano, singing the endless refrain, “That’s my family/We don’t like each other very much/I’m okay with that/But it breaks my mother’s heart.” However excellent the vocals, the lyrics are so on-the-nose they’re distracting. Jocelyn’s found her family! But they’re terrible people, and her recently deceased mother would be ashamed.
The Idol wants badly to be “provocative.” A “provocative” series can aspire to make audiences uncomfortable, but that discomfort should itself be a point of entry, a way to engage deeper. By only its second episode, The Idol is doing the opposite: Thus far, it is so thin and craven in its understanding of sex and celebrity that the desire is not to lean in closer. It’s to switch off the television.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.