American Idol (***)

Posted on January 2nd, 2004 in American Idol by EngineerBoy

“There’s Simon Cowell, who folks wanna disembowel, he opens his mouth, always says something foul, they’re dyin’, wow, wannabes are cryin’ now, he votes ‘em off, time to throw in the towel” — from “Couch Potato” by Weird Al Yankovich

This is the third season of American Idol. Until recently I had been snidely proud of the fact that I had never watched one single episode of any reality TV series. I even averted my eyes in disdain/disgust from commercials for reality shows.

But no longer. Three nights ago, purely out of curiosity, we (well me, but then Mynagirl got interested, too) tuned into the season premiere of American Idol. Then two nights ago we watched the second installment. Then last night we watched the third. Tonight we are lamenting that we have to wait until next week to see more. We’re hooked.

There had only been three shows that had hooked us in recent memory. Alias, 24, and anything related to poker. Now there are four. We put American Idol on a TiVo Season Pass, which is the highest compliment we can pay to a show. Is it Tuesday yet??

Mea Culpa
There are very few occasions when I am this wrong about how much I would like something. For example, I was sure that I would hate the movies Nine to Five and Moulin Rouge, but I loved them. Also, when the TV series Friends was in its fourth or fifth year, I worked with a group of folks who loved it. Loved it. I had never seen an episode, but I could tell from what I knew about the show that there was no way I could ever care about, nor be amused by, the cavorting and canoodling of six young Manhattanites. I was quite disdainful, mocking the show and my cow-orkers inexplicable interest in it to no end. Now I love the show, love the characters, know their life stories, care about what happens to them, and regret mocking my former cow-orkers. Could I be any more sorry?

And now add American Idol to the list. I don’t specifically recall ever making fun of the show to any fans, or mocking anyone for liking it, but I’m sure that I did, and I must say that I apologize. I have always known the shtick of the show…go to different cities and have wannabes try out in a singing contest, bring the finalists together and let the people choose. The finalists are selected by a panel of judges: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson. The whole thing is taped and the highlights of the tryouts and the finals are televised.

And in watching the first three episodes this season, I’ve discovered what Idol fans have always known, which is that the tryouts are grueling, funny, painful, and inspiring. They condense the highlights of the tryouts of a particular city down to a one hour broadcast, but it’s clear that the process lasts much longer, and that the three judges sit and watch/listen to hundreds contestant. They then vote on if they make it to the next round, and a simple majority wins, so you only have to convince two of the three judges. The contestants are a VERY mixed bag, with some so talentless that you know the Idol producers allowed them to audition simply for the entertainment value of their awfulness.

In fact, that’s probably my only objection to the show, at this point. The talent coordinators, who screen the thousands of wannabes down to the few hundred who actually perform for the judges, let through quite a few talentless weirdoes, apparently for the simple reason that there’s entertainment value in watching their painful performances. It’s a bit off-putting, however, to hear the judges then lambaste these contestants for “wasting everyone’s time”, but the truth is that it’s the show itself who allows them to consume screen time, and if the judges should be yelling at anyone it should be at their own talent coordinators. To me, the show is interesting enough without having to manufacture embarrassment and outrage in this fashion.

Broken Dreams
The most excruciating part of the show is watching the contestants who have a small modicum of ability, but somehow have magnified their “not-sucking” into “my-talent-is-my-ticket-to-the-top”. These people walk in fully expecting that the time of their discovery is finally at hand, and with complete confidence and joy step in front of the judges and croak out their auditions. The judges, particularly Simon, don’t always soften the blow, and in these auditions you actually witness the dashing of dreams. The sad truth is that if most of these folks had spent 30 minutes with a tape recorder and actually LISTENED to themselves, they would not have had such outsized confidence in their own abilities. But dreams die hard, and many of these people stalk out of the auditions and into the post-game interviews convinced that the judges are making a mistake, and you can feel that they’re going to go right back after their dreams with their drive undiminished. It’s actually awe-inspiring and heart-breaking at the same time.

There’s also a subset of contestants who can sing, but seem to feel the need to obscure that fact by doing something stupid like performing magic, singing nonsense songs, dressing strangely, and/or attempting complicated choreography. Some contestants walk in with a bad attitude, such as one young man who, when the judges were chatting with him before his audition and asked if he were excited, basically said that no, he wasn’t. When the judges prompted him for more information, and gently tried to lead him to at least admit that he cared about the contest, he became more and more surly, in that pseudo-tough teen way, to the point where the judges dismissed him without even letting him sing. I can’t say that I disagreed with them.

Great TV
All these ingredients add up to some very entertaining television. You never really know what’s going to happen next, such as a dissatisfied contestant dousing Simon with a glass of water, people refusing the leave the stage and continuing to sing even after the judges have left, and, finally, people who can sing. Really sing. One contestant began her audition, sang for about 10 seconds, and was immediately passed through to the next round because she clearly had the pipes for it. The judges are entertaining, and in most cases attempt to give the contestants constructive feedback. Simon can, of course, be a bit quick with the insults, but after watching the parade of semi-talented contestants, along with their penchant for disputing the opinion of these obviously qualified judges, I can certainly understand him getting snippy. Especially when I realize that they sit through hundreds and hundreds of these auditions, which must be nerve-wracking. It even got to the point where the judges were sniping at each other.

And the primary thing about the show that differs from my preconceptions is that it all feels very real. Yes, the coordinators occasionally stack the deck with talentless ringers, but for the most part the auditions, the judges reactions, and the contestants post-game interviews all ring very true. These people are, in most cases, putting their very sense of self up for judgment, because they think “I Am A Singer”. When they have that affirmed, their joy is unbridled and contagious. When they have it rejected, their dejection is palpable, but not unfair.

American Idyll
So I’ll be there next Tuesday night, couch-potato-ing my way through another episode along with millions of other viewers (including Mynagirl). I freely and humbly admit that I was wrong about this show, and consider my change-of-heart to be one more humbling lesson on the road of life. Two weeks ago I would have told you, unequivocally, that I would never, EVER, be taken in by the obvious parlor tricks of this show. But now this old dog is a new American Idol fan.

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