Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How American Idol lost its way and disappointed a country in season six

by Libby and Andy Scott

(In lieu of our usual Idol coverage, we offer up this conversation between regular Idol reviewer Libby and Andy Scott, editor of Everything Oscar and Entertainment Weekly's favorite Idol commentor. Both came to us separately and said they thought this season had been awful, so we threw them together to see what theories they could come up with to explain the decline. They also both assure me that Jordin was way better than Blake. -- ed.)

So, since you've watched every season, what did you think was different about this year?

Andy: Well, for starters: the talent. Or should I say lack thereof.

I'll be the first to admit that American Idol has discovered a number of bad singers, some of whom have made it very far in the competition. But whenever things looked grim, there'd always be at least one contestant to swoop in and deliver a show stopping, buzz worthy performance that made devoting 5 months to American Idol worthwhile. I'm talking Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or Chris Daughtry. These were people we looked forward to seeing each week.

Season six had none of this. There were no water cooler moments like "Stuff Like That There" or "Summertime" or "Alone". Jordin and Blake came close with "A Broken Wing" and "You Give Love a Bad Name" respectively, but to me they lacked a certain something. Not even Melinda pulled it off. Her best performance came during the semifinals with "My Funny Valentine."

But after that, she failed to remind us all why we fell in love with her in the first place.

Okay, so beyond the dearth of talent, were there other things that brought this season down?

Andy: This is going to sound so cliche, but Sanjaya! I was literally sickened by his presence on the show, especially toward the end of his reign.

Of course, like I said before, Idol is known for producing as many bad singers as good ones, so the fact that he became so infamous didn't really surprise me. And it wasn't even the singing that bothered me really. I knew eventually, just like in every season, people would eventually grow tired of his act.

What actually pissed me off was how the show took advantage of his persona. On many occasions, they went out of their way to try and create those watercooler moments. The constant cuts to Crying Girl Ashley Ferl were bad enough, but it didn't stop there. I'll never forget one episode in particular when, after revealing Sanjaya's latest hairdo, the camera then cut back to Ryan Seacrest, who had a puzzled look on his face. To me, it came off not as humorous, but a desperate plea for more buzz, and therefore more viewers. Now I know the show has manipulated America for five years running, but this season, more than ever, its tactics were more obvious.

Libby: Then why did you keep watching?

Andy: I don't know. After investing 5 years in a show, it's not easy to throw in the towel. And even when it was bad, it was still a nice distraction from the rest of the world. I also think part of me was rooting for the show to get better. Like, before each episode, I'd always think "Oh, this one will be so much better than last week's!" Unfortunately, that never happened.

So basically, it was kind of like a perfect storm of suck. Then, what they can do to prevent these sorts of things in the future? Should the basic setup of the show be made over?

Andy: If the producers are hoping for a comeback next season, they'd better pray for a more talented group of singers. But as we all know by now, American Idol is much more than a singing competition, so they're also going to need to give the contestants more face time.

If there's one thing that was missing this season it was a general lack of information about each contestant. To this day, I know very little about the top 12, and most of what I've learned I read on the Internet. If anything, they spent way, way, way too much time on each guest mentor, which made the contestants feel even less personable.

And I'm not sure if the show should change it's format. I mean, it worked for 5 seasons, which probably best explains why I was so confused about the whole Idol Gives Back thing. It felt so out of place compared to the previous seasons.

Libby: Is it possible that America's talent pool is tapped? Or, rather, that America's attractive talent pool is tapped?

Andy: For American Idol I would say yes, the talent pool is tapped - at least when it comes to the actual winner. People like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry have already proved that you don't need to win Idol to be successful anymore, so in a way that sort of takes away from the excitement of the finale, and therefore, the whole point of the show. The same thing will probably happen again this year if Melinda ever releases a record.

Libby: How about the mentors? They've already downgraded their involvement (the mentors are no longer guest judges, as in previous seasons -- ed.) so are they a necessary part of the show?

Andy: Previously, I always thought the mentors were a fun part of the show because they genuinely seemed to care about the contestants. This season was entirely different, though. With the exception of Lulu and (maybe) J-Lo, most of the mentors seemed to be there only to promote their latest single or upcoming album (Gwen Stefani, Bon Jovi) -- or even themselves.

Anyway, I mentioned Jennifer Hudson, who was part of season three; the last season you watched before you started watching season six. What did you make of your return to Idolland after being gone for so long?

Libby: While I never hid my obvious disdain for the show, I'm ashamed to say that despite how painful it can be, it still remains an addicting and compulsively watchable program. (Assuming you have TiVo. Watching it live is a fate I'd not wish on my worst enemy.)

Idol is America's favorite show. It is dictated by Americans. Thus, its follies are those of America itself. As evidenced in so many other areas, Idol is dictated by beauty and flash, not quality and substance. I think it's when Idol thinks it's anything more than the most shallow part of our psyche that it fails us. It's, like, congrats to the show for raising money for the needy, but at the same time it has us expect more from it, when that's just bound to end in disappointment.

Andy: Was season 6 addicting enough to keep you watching in the future?

Libby: I honestly don't see that happening. I've walked away before, and I don't foresee having a problem doing it again in the future. Especially as the show prefaces its seasons with nearly two completely offensive months of auditions and public humiliation.

Andy: I've talked to many people who plan to do the same, which leads me to ask: do you think, after six seasons, American Idol is over as a cultural touchstone?

Libby: I think it's easy for people to say that they won't watch it next year, but to the same extent, it is a very addicting show.

Every time that I think that it's over, Idol manages to suck people back in. I'm not going to say that it's over yet, but I think its hold over the American public is definitely weakening. However, until something comes along to replace it, I think it'll be around until some contracts start running out.

Andy: Do you think that replacement show could be, oh I don't know, Project Runway, especially since we'll be blogging it together in the fall?

Libby: Truly, I think it could be! Runway is the perfect reality show, in that it provides quality AND plenty of opportunities to be snarky and/or catty. (If only it was on a major network! -- ed.) I know that if I were a random reader, I would be quite interested in what bloggers had to say about such a quality production!

Andy: Agreed. Sharpen those claws, girlfriend! I’m ready when you are.

Anyway, thanks for taking time out to chat with me.

Libby: Thank you, Andy and welcome to SDD!

Glad to be here!

Back to you, Todd.


Luke said...

While I hate AI, I love Project Runway! Unfortunately I don't get it up here in Canada.

And I hate them for what they did to Alison.

Anonymous said...

For the love of God, people, it's an "addicTIVE" not an "addicTING" show.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

This is why no one likes me. :(

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Strictly speaking, though, the AP stylebook (the OFFICIAL stylebook of SDD -- no, really) has nothing to say on the matter, and the American Heritage Dictionary (the OFFICIAL dictionary of SDD -- or, the only one I have in my home) says the word addicting is OK, though it notes that it's a primarily American variant. A cursory Google search suggests that UK English is much stricter about the matter than US English.

Though the addictive/addicting thing didn't occur to me while editing the piece, I, in general, will let slang stand if the point gets across.

Libby said...

All that work and all they comment on is a weird grammer thing.
I mean, "perfect storm of suck"?
Come ON, people, what do you want from me?!

Just kidding, guys, we welcome corrections in all forms.

Andy Scott said...