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‘The Idol’s premiere doesn’t draw us any closer to an understanding of who it’s made for

The Idol’s series premiere invokes a Britney Spears-like pop star on the comeback trail with all vibes and no anchor to match.

Eddy Chen/HBO

There has been an overplus of documentaries, first-hand accounts, and stories on how damaging the bright lights of fame and stardom can be. Media members had to reckon with the treatment and coverage of Britney Spears when she was going through her mental health troubles. At least those were done with some needed self-awareness causing many people to look in the mirror. The first episode of the new HBO limited series, “The Idol,” aims to tell that story from a fictitious viewpoint in a way that tries to go out of its way to be unnecessarily edgy.

The first scene in “Pop Tarts & Rat Tales” shows a close-up shot of Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), a pop star returning from a year-long sabbatical following a nervous breakdown after her mother’s death. Jocelyn’s shooting the cover of her comeback single, and while she’s smiling, there’s a moment where the artist starts crying before the camera pans out to a room of people. It’s supposed to invoke the “star alone in a crowded room” feeling but quickly ditches the atmosphere for more overt tones.

Because the people around Jocelyn – well, they are not particularly great. Record label executive Nikki (Jane Adams) romanticizes how to sell Jocelyn’s new “beautiful and damaged” esthetic proclaiming that “mental illness is sexy.” She even throws a Sharon Tate reference out there. Much of this is against the perceived hesitancy of Jocelyn’s creative director Xander (Troye Sivan). There’s a disagreement about a nudity rider concerning Jocelyn posing topless with an intimacy coordinator, where co-manager Chaim (Hank Azaria) locks him in the bathroom for the shoot to continue.

Eddy Chen/HBO

Andrew (Eli Roth), a Live Nation representative, cares that Jocelyn is upright so she can sell tickets to an upcoming tour. Jocelyn’s best friend, Leia (Rachel Sennott), seems the most genuine out of everyone. Within this beehive of trying to get the most out of the star, everybody goes into panic mode when a lewd photo of Jocelyn leaks, as they figure out how to frame it. Is it revenge porn? Will it be an empowerment tool later? Her publicist Benjamin (Dan Levy), frantically tries to adjust on the fly. When Jocelyn is being discussed almost at a distance, she’s silently wondering if anybody is telling her the truth about the state of things. (You have almost to infer that yourself).

All of this leaves an opening for the enigmatic Tedros (Abel Tesfaye) to come in – first sharing a dance at a club to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” and taking their sudden chemistry to a small stairway in the back. The episode wants you to believe these two characters have some chemistry. They trade thoughts about pop music, and Tedros mentions the medium could be a “trojan horse” to get people to go along with things (wink, wink). You can see what is about to happen a mile away – Jocelyn is searching for someone to “be truthful” to her. In one scene, she asks Leia about her new single, to which she replies that she thinks it’s good.

The song is almost a metaphor for the show’s first episode. One would expect a lot of cinematic style from “Euphoria” – but not too heavy on substance once you get past the beats and voice. Jocelyn also knows this – when dancing a new routine, there’s no pop or willingness to crawl back into the skin of the person she was before the breakdown. Yet, “Pop Tarts & Rat Tales,” directed by creator Sam Levinson, immediately wants to jump into sensual scenes without earning the emotions they embody. Instead, there are random spurts of bondage.

If the first episode of “The Idol” was a vibe to show stylish cigarette smoking, characters standing in darkened hallways, and gazes, the first episode would be on to something. However, at least initially, the narrative retraces the real-life steps of pop tragedy’s past without peering into the important why.

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