Friday, January 18, 2008

Idol Concerns

The 800-pound gorilla is back.

On Tuesday, the most popular program currently on American television returned to the airwaves, kicking off its seventh season. "American Idol" debuted on 15 Jan 2008 to impressive -- though compared to last year, somewhat lower -- ratings numbers. A walloping 33.2 million people tuned in to see the first night, with Wednesday's audience slightly smaller.

And what did they get to see?

The "American Idol" formula is unchanged this year. Why fix what ain't broke? And that means that the 33.2 million viewers were treated to the usual round of delusional, fame-hungry dipsticks as always, with a smattering of serviceable oversingers getting wildly overpraised by the snickering panel of judges ("Absolutely! One million percent!").

Lead jurist Simon Cowell has said in interviews going into this season that he was dissatisfied with last year's effort and thought that it didn't focus enough on the personalities of the contestants, placing more emphasis on celebrity coaches and stunts. I believe I detected some groundwork being laid in that direction when two or three wannabes were given a golden ticket, despite the fact that they weren't even up to the usual overwrought Idol style. But they did have solid backstories. Watch for that trend in the early rounds.

The rest of the judges continue to play Larry and Shemp to Cowell's Moe. Randy Jackson, with his new saturnine facial hair, still falls back on all his usual vague criticisms ("Pitchy" whatever that means). And Paula Abdul is the same clueless substance-abusing nymphomaniac that America has come to know and tolerate. Ryan Seacrest also cheerfully fills his usual role; consoling losers, celebrating with the chosen. When he ushers in the latest pathetic lamb to the slaughter, he reminds me of Jerry Lewis in The Day the Clown Cried. Or at least, what I've heard of that legendary unreleased film.

The undeniably successful "American Idol" formula feels terribly tired this time around. Back seven years ago, seeing this line-up of talentless glory-grubbers was unusual. Now, there are whole networks devoted to sticking these rats in cages and performing experiments on them. The novelty is long gone.

But honesty compels me: There were times when I couldn't help but laugh out loud. I felt dirty laughing, but laugh I did. The girl with the glitter make-up (Simon correctly said she looked like Willem Dafoe) who got rejected and after a screaming tirade said she was going off to "do actressing" cracked me up. The doughy gentleman in the Princess Leia slave-girl costume who agreed to get a painful all-over body wax to procure an audition, then was only allowed two words of a song before a perfunctory "Thank you," was a hoot. And there were several others besides.

But a little of this material goes a long way. If I could dare presume to suggest anything to this insanely successful franchise, I would recommend cutting back a bit on the early audition shows and get to the competition a little quicker. If Cowell's right and the show will improve as we get to know the contestants, how about we do that sooner rather than later?

The numbers might be down a touch from last year, but with new scripted TV harder and harder to find, "American Idol" is a sure-thing ratings titan this year. And they haven't even found the next Sanjaya yet.

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