This post contains spoilers for The Idol—and 1992’s Basic Instinct.
Euphoria creator Sam Levinson isn’t known for subtlety. So naturally, there’s already plenty of thematic writing on the wall in The Idol, his controversial new series starring Abel Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp—which debuted on HBO after its Cannes premiere.
Tesfaye, who cocreated the series with Levinson and longtime collaborator Reza Fahim, stars as Tedros, a rat-tailed nightclub owner entranced by Depp’s rehabilitating pop star Jocelyn. Much of the show’s sex-fueled first episode is fairly straightforward in depicting what has been billed as “the sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood.” Jocelyn, whose comeback single is titled “World Class Sinner,” finds something new to believe upon dancing with Tedros to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” When Tedros suggests that Jocelyn emulate Prince to enliven her soulless pop music, she’s already walked by portraits of the musician in her home. And later in the episode, Tedros drops to his knees in front of Jocelyn just as her single’s lyrics command him to.
But perhaps the most revealing moment in the episode (other than all of the actual nudity) is when Jocelyn and her best friend/assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) watch Basic Instinct. It’s clear that Paul Verhoeven serves as inspiration for the series’ more risqué business—from an opening sequence in which an intimacy coordinator gets locked in a closet for doing his job (“Will you let people enjoy sex, drugs and hot girls? Stop trying to cockblock America,” a member of Jocelyn’s team played by Jane Adams insists) to a scene where Jocelyn chokes herself while she masturbates. But is Levinson also using the film to hide his show’s ending in plain sight?
As the Jocelyn discusses her attraction to Tedros, despite his “rapey” vibe, a potentially telling clip of Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in the 1992 erotic thriller plays. “What happens?” his character asks hers, to which she replies: “She kills him.”
Thus far, Jocelyn has been positioned as a fallen star finding her footing after both the death of her mother and a hospital stay for unidentified mental health issues. Jocelyn’s assumed victimization is furthered by her constant state of undress and the leaking of a photo of her with cum on her face. (“How are 14-year-old girls going to buy tickets to the concert when she’s frosted like a Pop Tart?” Eli Roth’s LiveNation executive barks.) Meanwhile, Tedros is a shadowy figure who makes a villain-like entrance at Jocelyn’s mansion, where he nearly suffocates her with her own silk robe in order to tease out a more sensual vocal performance. If that didn’t have one convinced of the power dynamics at play, at one point Jocelyn even gets compared to Sharon Tate, the actress who was murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
Then again, Jocelyn holds all of the cards at the beginning of their late-night tryst. She wears towering stilettos in order to be “taller than him” and lounges with a cigarette as Tedros paces her living room, cleaning his teeth and perfecting his “Hello, angel” greeting. The show itself opens by establishing Jocelyn’s ability to play a part—she both laughs and cries on cue, directly into the camera’s gaze.
“You see how good this character is at manipulating us emotionally,” Levinson says in a post-show closer look on HBO. “What’s so brilliant about Lily’s performance is that despite the fact she tells you that up front, you forget how she’s able to deceive the audience.” Supervising producer Julio Perez says the opening is “a warning as to what she’s capable of.”
But just as Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell isn’t unmasked as the murderer until after she frames Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Dr. Beth Gardner (a former lover with whom she’s obsessed), it’s possible that a supporting female character may become collateral damage in Jocelyn’s love affair. She could be the pop star’s best backup dancer, a character played by Blackpink’s Jennie Ruby Jane who is giving All About Eve vibes. Or Jocelyn’s own best friend, Leia. The camera often lingers on Sennott’s character in the premiere—always waiting in the wings, and expressing early trepidation about Tedros’s influence. Leia is the one who stops the couple from hooking up in the club’s seedy stairwell and who reminds Jocelyn of her early-morning call time as she downs shots with Tedros. Is an up-close shot of Leia and Jocelyn’s hands grazing one another during their Basic Instinct watch merely a show of friendship, or something more?
The idea that Jocelyn could be the one playing Tedros was also floated in a The New York Times piece at Cannes. “It’s going to be easy for the audience to immediately think, Oh my god, he’s using her,” Depp said of Jocelyn and Tedros. “I think that they are two twisted psychopaths who love each other. She’s going to use him, too.” Levinson further confirmed that “the audience will slowly begin to see who the true villain of the piece is.” Slowly—or right away?
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