#4: “American Idol.” [TV Aughtrospective]

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In a media age characterized by the rise of reality and interactivity, when Andy Warhol’s famous dictum about 15 minutes of fame has never seemed more valid, there is no show more emblematic of the times. This series has repeatedly proven its ability to discover and promote star-level talent — and not just in terms of its contestants. Through the genius machinations of its producers, it manages to engage and entertain tens of millions of people across a variety of demographic groups on a weekly basis. It features one of the most memorable TV villains of the decade, an antagonist who’s not afraid to rip apart the dreams of young men and women and then laugh in their faces.

Most importantly, it has consistently fed the American people’s (delusional?) belief that anyone can be a star and that everyone’s opinion matters. No overview of the decade in television is complete without a hat tip to its influence and success, and if you think this show is lame, either you have never really watched a season, or you’re just an insufferable snob.

We deem “American Idol” the 4th best television show of the aughts: it consistently lived up to its billing, entertained millions, fueled a rich and varied Internet subculture, and never stopped evolving.

It’s easy to forget, now that “AI” is an unparalleled ratings juggernaut that warrants major news headlines when it makes an offseason lineup change: the show began its life on American television as a summer replacement show in 2002, just another US spinoff of a European (in this case, British) reality concept. By that September, its finale pulled down 50 million viewers, and a hugely successful franchise was born. The irony is that the first season’s contestant talent was, with one notable exception, fairly mediocre. “AI” didn’t become a huge hit because it struck an untapped gold mine of vocal greatness — it became a huge hit because it is flawlessly composed and executed, like a classic pop song.

“AI” didn’t invent the idea of a talent-search-themed reality show; it merely perfected it. Sure, plenty of future stars like Christina Aguilera and Uncle Joey appeared on “Star Search,” but they were effectively lost among the millions of contestants who strutted across the stage in a long series of forgettable episodes. The genius of “AI” is that it weaves multiple narratives about its young contestants, deftly manipulating each thread in episode after episode, slowly bringing the favorites to the fore before crowning a champion in a compelling finale broadcast — and all the while encouraging the target audience to think (a) “Hey, that could be ME up there!” and (b) “Where’s my cell phone, my vote truly counts!”

Each season starts out at the regional auditions, where the future Idols compete alongside delusional, talentless idiots. Every future finalist is lost in a vast sea of hopefuls (above, Denver’s football stadium is seen packed with Idol tryouts). These early episodes largely feature tonedeaf freaks being ripped apart by the judges, particularly the cruel Simon Cowell (more on him later). When a contestant with actual talent pops up in the midst of this mediocrity, it’s like a bolt from the blue. We see the people who will later go on to battle for the crown as ordinary schmoes, accompanied by their moms at the audition, thrilled by the chance to escape their boring hometowns and head for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at fame in glamorous Hollywood! (Never mind that Hollywood proper is actually a pretty gross, slummy place.) The narratives that will carry us through the season begin in these humble moments, when the nascent Idol is just a kid with a dream from Nowheresville, USA.

By the way, that almost perfectly describes the backstory of the show’s host, Ryan Seacrest, when the show premiered in 2002. Not only was Seacrest a no-name back then, he actually shared hosting duties with the soon-to-be-a-trivia-answer Brian Dunkleman. We’ve heard many people bemoan the ubiquity of Seacrest, who hosts the nation’s most popular television show, a widely-syndicated morning radio show, the legendary American Top 40 weekend radio countdown, and the highest-profile New Year’s Eve special. It’s our observation that most of the people who “hate” Seacrest are merely evidencing a knee-jerk reaction against anything that’s widely popular in American culture, and have never actually watched or listened to anything he’s done for more than five minutes.

NOBODY in show business works harder than Ryan Seacrest – check out this interview with Jimmy Kimmel in which he explains that every day of his life is governed by a remorseless minute-by-minute schedule. Seacrest is preternaturally comfortable in front of the camera or microphone, and has a natural talent for sympathetically interviewing everyone from weirdos to superstars. In the context of Idol, he masterfully delivers voting results to maximize suspense, while nobly defending contestants from Simon’s wrath. When the list of megastars launched by “AI” is drawn up, Seacrest’s name should be at the top of the list.

Anyway, one of the amazing things about “AI” is its ability to draw in different groups of people by presenting compelling contestants geared to their collective preferences. This skillful collage of appeal is the reason why “American Idol” is so successful. Take the recently-concluded Season 8 as an example. This competition featured the coastal-friendly, barely-closeted Adam Lambert; Southern tween-bait charmer Kris Allen; punky Latina rocker Allison Iraheta; insufferable Christian widower and blue-eyed soulster Danny Gokey; urban/R&B wannabe Lil Rounds; Buble-lite midwesterner Matt Giraud; oil-rig-workin’ country boy Michael Sarver; attractive-but-untalented tattoo-sleeved babe Megan Joy; Indian-American a cappella preppie Anoop Desai; and legally-blind piano man Scott McIntyre. Only the naive viewer would think that “AI” simply selects the best singers and goes from there — instead, the show is carefully calibrated to present a series of appealing characters that will draw different kinds of viewers in and inspire all of them to pick up their phones. For savvy TV viewers, it’s a joy to watch the producers craft these narratives and set up showdowns between the different sectors of their audience.

If you take in a season of “AI,” you are pretty much guaranteed to see the rise of a no-name singer who will eventually become a giant star. At the very least, you’re assured of seeing some interesting personalities. Let’s recap the outstanding characters from the first eight seasons of the show:

  1. The winner, Kelly Clarkson, became a major star; she would go on to record one of the best pop singles of the decade and become the female version of Meat Loaf: great pipes, but a little scary to behold. Honorable mention to Justin Guarini, Kelly’s co-star in the unintentional-comedy classic film, “From Justin to Kelly.”
  2. The two finalists, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, have both gone on to successful careers in the music business. Ruben, the winner, has largely faded from mainstream attention, but his albums continue to have great success on the R&B charts. Clay is a weirdo but his albums sell surprisingly well, probably because he anticipated the return to popularity of “standards”. Both have also launched musical theater careers.
  3. Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson was one of the finalists, although criminally under-appreciated on the show. Winner Fantasia is still around, kicking off a new VH1 reality show in 2010. We’d be remiss to ignore rejectee William Hung, whose immortal performance of “She Bangs” will live forever on YouTube.
  4. Carrie Underwood, ever heard of her? Carrie opened up the country genre for a show that had previously only focused on R&B and pop, and became the biggest star the show has yet produced. Here’s an awesome song by the lovely Carrie, and here’s another. Honorable mention to Constantine Maroulis, who ended up starring in “Rock of Ages” on Broadway, romancing socialites and the actresses who play them on TV.
  5. Taylor Hicks was a forgettable winner, but runner-up Katharine McPhee has gone on to a decent music/movie crossover career. The most significant contestant was probably Chris Daughtry, who has forged decent (albeit cheesy) modern rock success with his eponymous band: another genre conquered by Idol contestants.
  6. Winner Jordin Sparks has been tearing up the charts lately, including a hugely successful collab with Chris Brown. (Interestingly, she is the only non-Southerner to win the competition thus far.)
  7. It’s still too early to tell if winner David Cook will achieve sustained success in the music biz, but runner-up David Archuleta remains a massive tween sensation.
  8. Kris Allen might have won but he seems like the poor man’s John Mayer to us (if he doesn’t hit it big, we’ll be the first to crow that Simon was right and he should have hidden his wife). The huge breakout star is of course Adam Lambert, who transformed the season with his epic performances and went on to scandalize the nation by facehumping a dude on a live TV broadcast.

Part of the reason why the nation embraces so many “AI” stars after the season’s last broadcast is that we’ve watched them audition, fight through the pack of finalists to be noticed, perform great one week and lousy the next, push themselves and expand their repertoire, appear in some truly stupid Ford commercials, appeal for votes again and again, stand up to receive criticism and praise from the panel of judges, and conclude their season with victory, or more likely, disappointment. The sympathetic response this process provokes has helped many former “Idol” finalists get a toehold in the music industry.

The judge panel is a huge element of the show’s success, which makes their recent lineup changes all the more troubling with regard to future years. However, for the first seven seasons, “AI” featured a three-judge panel that set the bar for all other reality competitions to follow. “Idol” established a judge-panel template that all competitors would be wise to imitate: the soft-touch nice judge, the relaxed and cool (but sometimes critical) judge, and the asshole mean judge who speaks the truth every single time.

Paula Abdul was the “mom” of the show, showering even mediocre contestants with praise (and in one case, taking up with contestant Corey Clark and helping him advance in the competition). While she grew more and more incoherent as the decade went on, ultimately leading to her ouster, Paula at her best was an integral part of “AI.” When a contestant had just been savaged by Simon, Paula was always there to soothe his bruised ego. It definitely remains to be seen how well the show will hold up in her absence: the jury is still out on Kara DioGuardi, but they’re definitely leaning towards conviction. (Ellen DeGeneres is pretty awesome, but can she really be the next Paula? We will find out; but that’s twenty-tweens business, and we’re talking aughts here.)

At one time, for instance the 1990s, Randy Jackson‘s claim to fame — session bassist who became a spandex-wearing member of late-stage Journey — would have been grounds for disdain, but there was nothing lame about ironic Journey-related fame in the aughts. Randy was the pivot between Paula and Simon, providing a swing vote; he would usually preface his remarks by saying “for you” or “for me” a thousand times, before proclaiming that a performance was either “pitchy” or “HOT!”.

The clip above (click through, it’s worth it) is a classic example of Simon Cowell at work. He is basically a heartless S.O.B. who is completely unafraid to say what he thinks and hurt people’s feelings. Consequently, he also has by far the most credibility of any “AI” judge. He’s also become one of the most compelling villains on television in a long, long time. Entire regions of the country have exploded in outrage after Simon savages their favorite contestant’s latest performance on live TV. Simon Cowell is the judge that critical viewers love because he speaks the truth, while fans of particular contestants love to hate him for the same reason. Even when Simon has clearly chosen a favorite, he’s still ready and willing to let them know when they mail in a performance.

So many reality talent shows have fallen short of the high standard set by “AI” because they either fail to realize the importance of having a “Simon,” or because the judges they select are too chickenshit to tell the contestants how mediocre most of them are. A great example of this is the recent, forgettable NBC show “The Sing Off,” which featured Ben Folds, a Boy II Men and the main Pussycat Doll as judges — basically, two Randys and a more coherent Paula. It was often excruciating to watch because nobody would man up and tell a crappy group that their performance was terrible.

There’s one more element of “AI” that must be mentioned: its interactivity has fueled an Internet subculture that most densely-plotted dramas would die for. The most obvious example of this is Vote for the Worst – a website that identifies the weakest contestants on “Idol” and then rallies Internet jerks to keep them in the competition. Yes, “AI” is so successful, it’s actually spawned a subculture of people who ostensibly hate it, yet completely play into its hands by following along and voting.

For those who actually like to see the bad performers voted off and the good performers stay, there’s amazing ancillary material like EW’s Idolatry blog and videos: they are absolutely essential viewing for any Idol-head.

“AI” gets so little critical love that we had to seek out the wisdom of Brett McCracken at his blog, “The Search,” to find someone who agreed with us about this show’s place in the aughts pantheon. He makes some excellent points:

This is the show that has dominated the decade in ratings and reality TV trends. After Idol came all the other dancing, performing, talent shows. But Idol’s contribution was also to the emerging landscape of “convergence” television in general—perfecting the art of audience interactivity, product placement, and trans-media storytelling (a live show, a concert tour, single available on iTunes, etc).

It’s not Citizen Kane or anything, but it’s a ridiculously well-oiled machine of moneymaking pop entertainment. And I applaud that.

To recap: “American Idol” is a perennial ratings uber-champion that achieves its success not by boiling its product down to an unoriginal, easily-digestible pablum, but by creating a diverse, interesting, evolving product that pulls people in from all walks of life and convinces them to get involved. Its panel of judges set the standard by which all other reality competitions will be … judged. It bills itself as the search for the next great American singing talent, and it has indeed unearthed a good dozen pop stars. It is the most popular television show in America because it is one of the most deftly crafted television programs of all time. Like its principal sponsor Coca-Cola, it’s ubiquitous not only because it is relentlessly marketed and sold, but also because it’s freaking delicious.

If you still disagree, that’s certainly your right — but try watching an entire season before you dismiss it. You might just be surprised at how addictive and fun “AI” can be.

(UPDATE: You’d better hurry, because this is reportedly Simon’s final season.)

TV Aughtrospective:
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#3: “Lost.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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