Wan contestants, useless and uncritical judging, bloated episodes, no room for girl singers— Idol has gone from comeback kid to twice-weekly chore. Richard Rushfield misses Simon Cowell.
What a difference a few weeks makes. At the beginning of March, the media ( including this columnist) universally declared that American Idol had done the impossible—revitalized the show in its tenth season and survived the departure of its iconic star, Simon Cowell. Perhaps it even came out ahead, we all agreed, as the wacky verbiage of Steven Tyler became a national sensation.
Well, that was then. Now, it seems that all the clouds that had loomed over Fox's Idol have returned. Last week, the distant rumblings became a downpour after the dismissal of an early favorite, Pia Toscano. Within moments of the results, an Idol backlash had gathered and burst, as fans and critics pointed fingers over the shocking ouster.
The outcry over Toscano's departure may be overstated—in the end, her robotic performances had as much to do with her fate as anything. But nonetheless, in the fallout, discussion has turned from The Idol Miracle, to Has Idol Completely Lost Its Way (For Real This Time).
How could everything that seemed so right suddenly be so wrong? Let us take a look.
A much-discussed fact is that Idol has not produced a mega-selling act in what is now a very long time. The last winner who can legitimately claim that status, Carrie Underwood, dates back six years at this point. Chris Daughtry, the last contestant to sell in the multiple millions, dates back five years. Initially, the goal of this season was to put some teeth back into the original Idol promise to create recording superstars of its champions. With the help of producer Jimmy Iovine on board, it was said they would guide the singers out of the Celine Dion/Whitney Houston big-voiced, circa 1994 balladeering ghetto into more contemporary sounds.
Throughout the lackluster night of oldies, the words "perfect" and "beautiful" were invoked over and over like a Buddhist mantra.
Half a season later, we've heard a lot of what sounds like familiar Idol balladeering and little that sounds like anything heard on today's radio. The only contestants with real contemporary hit potential seem to be the three operating in the country space (Haley Rinehart, Lauren Alaina, and Scotty McCreary). One of this trio may yet win and could go on to follow in Carrie Underwood's footsteps and become a huge country star, achieving success in that world, but the chances that this season will produce a winner ready to dominate the pop charts looks increasingly slim.
Further, as evidenced by the Toscano shocker, the curse on Idol's women has been far from dispelled. It has been four years now since Idol had a female champion (Jordin Sparks), and for the past few seasons, the women have become the show's cannon fodder, dispatched in the early weeks by an Idol electorate heavily dominated (anecdotal evidence suggests) by tween girls who vote heavily for boys—Cute White Boys in particular—creating a Cute White Boy Dynasty that has dominated on the show but struggled on the recording charts.
This season, it was hoped that some very strong female contenders would change that. Well, thus far, after the first five eliminations, all five of them been exclusively female, while a fair number of cute, innocuous boys (Casey Abrams, Paul McDonald) remain standing. If the Cute White Boy Dynasty claims another year, and brings with it its tepid sales record, the promise of the Idol narrative is going to become almost impossible to sustain.
Coming into the season, the driving creative agenda behind-the-scenes was to Un-Simon Cowell the show. No slams, no beating up on kids just for the sport of it. In the spirit of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe's other show, So You Think You Can Dance, any criticisms were to be supportive and constructive. The era of reality show cruelty was past, so the thinking went.
Last week put that proposition to the test when the judging panel—Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson—went an entire episode with a grand total of exactly one critical remark (an extremely gentle finger wag by Jackson). Throughout the lackluster night of oldies, the words "perfect" and "beautiful" were invoked over and over like a Buddhist mantra.
So after half a season living in the era of positivity the results have come in and...the show is boring. Without Cowell's verdict of God, the episodes have become shapeless. Officially, after the cast is chosen, the judges play no formal role in Idol's winnowing process (other than through use of the "save"). They offer advice to voters that the electorate is free to heed or disregard, and even in the Cowell era, the advice was ignored as much as it was taken. But although the show technically could function without any judges at all, from its inception it was felt that as a television event, Idol needed a judging panel to provide instant feedback, so audiences would have a filter through which to consider the performances and to provide some real-time drama before the votes are counted. The wisdom of this choice has been universally replicated across the competition genre.
Now, with the judges handing out effusive backrubs like Halloween candy, the value of that feedback has effectively been eliminated. Even on the events (all too rare) when Jackson or Lopez (never Tyler) venture into criticism, the barbs barely break the flesh. No one on the panel has attempted to replicate Cowell's Hammer of God delivery intoning, "That. Was. Horrendous." Without that sword hanging over the rulings, it has become a chore after each performance to sit and watch every contestant be serially complimented.
Further, united in positivity, the frisson within the judging panel has evaporated. The famed Paula/Simon good cop/bad cop routine has been replaced by a trio locking arms and beaming in unison. On the one hand, this helps put the spotlight back on the contestants and takes some of the oxygen away from the former scenery chewing panel, on the other hand, we still spend a lot of time focused on the drama-free judges.
Worse still, without any Voice of Truth (as wildly off the mark or driven by its own agenda as it may have been), Idol seems to have succumbed to the most potentially threatening of diseases: overhyping. The genius of the Cowell element was that audiences could sit through a night of mediocre performances without feeling cheated or manipulated. Cowell would not only let the audiences know they were right in thinking a performance was off, but would come out and say an entire night was a disaster, something unthinkable for the star of a show pre- Idol and still fairly revolutionary. But now, audiences sit through a lackluster night and hear the show only telling them that it was beautiful and perfect, essentially giving the audiences a message they were all too accustomed to from the entertainment industry, a message that Idol was supposed to be the antidote to: If you think this is bad, it's because you just don't know enough to know how good it was.
Once audiences feel like they are being manipulated or hyped, that trust lost can be hard to regain, and in that respect, Idol seems to be treading on dangerous ground right now.
If there is a sense that the hype machine is being unnaturally churned, some of this year's segments have helped paint that picture. Pre-season, the talk was that Idol, which many felt had become a bloated Godzilla in its three-hour weekly size, would be shrunk down to more modest dimensions. In particular, it was promised that the results shows, always stuffed with Idol's worst filler, would be a mere half-hour this season.
Not only do the results shows continue to weigh in at their full hour length, but the time-chewing segments have seemed more pointless than ever. Segments the likes of which haven't been seen since the first couple seasons—the Idols at a photo shoot, the Idols getting makeovers— have been shown. Last week's visit to the TMZ offices for coaching in...how to be stalked by TMZ, seemed an all-time low.
Idol is far from doomed. Sitting at the very pinnacle of network television's ratings still, it has miles to fall before it hits the ground, and all that room to correct itself. Yet the problems, for Idol fans, are alarming, occurring as they do in places where the show had been so surefooted in the past.
Further, with singing contest competition coming later this month in the form of NBC's Mark Burnett-produced The Voice, followed by the return to the airwaves of Judge Cowell himself with The X Factor this fall, for the first time in its history, it may soon not just be Idol's contestants who are singing for their lives.
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.