Where would TV be without American Idol? I hope we don’t find out any year soon. Even when it does something wrong, Idol fires up fans and critics alike in ways that the producers of other popular programs can only dream of.
Consider the last two weeks. After two months of strangely sleepy audition episodes and low-wattage Hollywood competition, during which only the emotional outbursts of frantic wannabe Tatiana Del Toro generated any real buzz, Idol excitingly took off during the semi-finals, which narrowed the competition down to the nine singers who received the most votes from home viewers and four (rather than the traditional three) wild card selections by the four (rather than the traditional three) judges. As did the addition several months ago of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi, the unexpected increase last week from twelve finalists to thirteen signaled that Idol would be full of surprises and shake-ups as its eighth season progressed.
And then came this week’s shows, which brought us Idol at its best and, I would argue, its worst. Tuesday’s two-hour installment – the beginning of the competition between the finalists and for many viewers the true season premiere of this franchise -- was rolling right along with several very good performances (Lil Rounds, Danny Gokey, Scott MacIntyre) and a few clunkers (Anoop Desai, Jasmine Murray, Jorge Nunez), as is often the case. And then came that kick-ass version of Michael Jackson’s Black and White by Adam Lambert, the first contestant this season to have his personal life breathlessly targeted by bloggers and other online gossips. Lambert unexpectedly galvanized judges and fans alike, prompting Paula Abdul to declare that his performance was likely the best ever in the seven-year history of the show (at least I think that’s what Paula was saying) and Simon Cowell to comment that it was in a different league from everything else that had been done on stage that night. Randy Jackson raved that Lambert could release an album straight away and be a success (even without the Idol machine). Kara was similarly impressed. It was one of those all-too-rare moments of glory that Idol fans live for.
Two more great things were evident throughout Tuesday’s show, the first this season to play on the real Idol stage. As if in answer to my prayers, which I repeated time and again in this column last spring, the annoying moshers (or pit dancers, or whatever they are known as these days) have been pushed away from the area directly in front of the stage (between the performers and the judges) and off to the sides, where their wildly waving arms will no longer serve as a distraction to viewers and judges. (It seemed last season as though the Idol producers had forgotten that they were delivering entertainment for the enjoyment of millions of people in their homes, rather than hundreds in the studio.) Also, the overall direction of the show – especially the lighting and editing – seemed greatly improved from last year, when so many of the contestants looked lost on what was then a new and much larger stage than had been used during the first six seasons. Television, especially on the large flat screens of the new millennium, is first and foremost a visual medium, and Idol gave us all much to savor this week.
The projected video of each singer on the floor (where the moshers used to be) during each performance was another welcome surprise. During my recent trip to Rome I saw the same on-the-floor projection during a telecast of Grande Fratello, Italy’s version of Big Brother (which thoroughly engrossed me even though I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying). I returned from Italy wondering why studio-bound reality series in this country aren’t as visually dazzling as Grande Fratello, but it seemed to me that the entire Idol experience this week crackled with the same hi-tech energy I had enjoyed on that show. I wonder what international editions of Idol look like?
Unfortunately, my renewed enthusiasm for Idol was tempered by the format change teased by host Ryan Seacrest on Tuesday and bluntly revealed by him on Wednesday: Once during this season the judges will be able to veto the home audience’s decision if a contestant whom they believe should remain in the competition receives the lowest number of votes. The week after the judges use their veto, the two contestants who receive the lowest number of votes will be sent home in a sorrowful double elimination.
This might actually be a fun idea if the judges were to catch us off guard with their one-time-only veto absent any advance notice! In other words, it should come as a surprise. But as incorporated into the proceedings on Wednesday, this new twist took much of the drama and all of the feel-good energy out of the hour. Jasmine and Jorge, the two lowest vote getters, were each made to perform for the judges in one last desperate shot at survival and then stand there and be told for a second time that they weren’t good enough to remain in the competition. This did not play well in the studio or on television. The contestants were made to look awkward, the judges were made to look cruel and home viewers had to once again suffer through the two performances they least enjoyed the night before. (Why can’t the best performance from the night before, as determined by the judges, be repeated during the results show? The votes are already in! This is something ABC’s Dancing with the Stars gets right, but Idol has always gotten wrong.) The dramatic impact that should have come with the revelation of the contestants who were going home was significantly blunted by this ill-conceived attempt to add extra suspense to the show. Fox needs to fix this, fast.