Friday, January 16, 2009

"American Idol" Returns With a New Judge in Tow

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I am not a fan of "American Idol" (Fox, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern), but it's not for the reason you might think. I am not against all reality programs. I am fine with highly rated, fairly harmless entries. There is nothing wrong with a network programming a reality series that is a proven hit, especially when it is innovative and shakes up the schedule a bit. It's the mid-level, middling-rated, thrown-together knock-offs that really bug me (yeah, I'm looking at you "Superstars of Dance"), since they only exist because they are cheap to produce, and they take a place that could be filled by a similarly rated (but more expensive) scripted show. (I discussed the long-term risks of this strategy in a column last February.)

The only real reason I haven't been a fan of "American Idol" is because I don't like teeny-bopper pop music, which is the bread and butter of the show. "Idol" hit the air when boy bands and empty-headed young singers like Britney and Jessica ruled the music business, a time I like to refer to as The Year the Music Died. And not much has changed. The introductory montage of this season's premiere included a room of tween girls breathlessly awaiting the verdict as to who would be last year's winner, and then sobbing in anguish because light rocker David Cook bested hearthrob David Archuleta. That, to me, summed up the appeal of "American Idol," and that is something I want no part of.

After all, when the networks have featured rock-themed talent contests, I've been on board (like both seasons of "Rock Star," first finding a new singer for INXS, and then casting a front-person for a made-for-the-show band consisting of Tommy Lee, Gilby Clarke and Jason Newsted). But because I never cared about the Clay Aikens and Kelly Clarksons of the world, I mostly steered clear of "Idol."

What caused me to take a look at this season's first two two-hour episodes? No, not the singer who auditioned in a bikini (although she was exceptionally easy on the eyes). It was the addition of a new judge, songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi. "Idol" has been a top-five show for the past seven seasons, so to make a major change to the winning formula is big news (DioGuardi joins the regular panel of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson). Since "Idol" lost a chunk of viewers last season, and this season's premiere rated even lower than last year's, it is understandable that the producers would want to take some risks to reinvigorate the program.

So is DioGuardi a good addition? Unequivocally, yes. First of all, she lends a measure of credibility to the panel. She is a current hit-maker, writing and producing successful songs for popular artists like Pink, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood. Cowell will still write a hit now and again (like for Leona Lewis), but he is more of a television personality now than anything else, and Abdul hasn't been culturally relevant as a performer since the Soviet Union still existed.

More importantly, DioGuardi lends a second passionate voice to the panel. Cowell's bad-guy shtick may have grown tired and cliche, but at least he offers a strong opinion (usually some variation on "that was dreadful" or a begrudging admission of quality with a half-smile yes vote). Abdul is the same to every contestant, nice and nurturing, whether she votes yes or no. It's a quality that might make for a good person, but not for interesting television. And Jackson is just plain odd. It's like he is so ingrained in doing the show that he feels like his reactions don't have to actually relate to anything going on in front of him anymore. When he is outvoted, he doesn't seem to care. All of his comments seem to have "just as long as the check clears" as their subtext.

But DioGuardi, maybe because she's new, but also because she's current and smart, speaks her mind. She's more specific in her notes than Jackson, more direct than Abdul, and certainly more likable than Cowell. She was put to the test in the debut when a high-school-aged auditioner showed DioGuardi a binder filled with songs she had written, explaining that the new judge was her role model. The girl clearly wasn't ready for a professional singing career, and DioGuardi, despite being a rookie, expertly let her down easy, providing better advice than Abdul, and showing more compassion than Cowell, even as the girl was pathetically begging for inclusion in the finals. (After clearly being told by the panel she wasn't good enough, she nevertheless says: "I know that, like, some of you are kind of on the fence about me now.") I'm not sure how die-hard "Idol" fans will read DioGuardi's blend of experience, knowledge and passion, but to a non-fan like me, it was a nice change from the predictable and tired personas of the three veteran judges.

It's been about four years since I last took in some of "Idol," and after watching the first four hours of this season, I don't like the show any better than I used to. Again, the idea of listening to wannabe pop stars singing pop hits (or worse, standards like "Over the Rainbow") doesn't float my boat. And I'm no fan of host Ryan Seacrest. Watching him brings to mind Jimmy Fallon as Carson Daly on "Saturday Night Live," starting each sketch with, "I'm Carson Daly, and I'm a massive tool." Seacrest has clearly gone to the Carson Daly Tool Institute for Annoyingly Vacant Television Personalities, and graduated with high honors. His much-maligned attempt to high-five a blind contestant in this season's premiere didn't feel like something out of the ordinary. This guy is such an empty-headed moron, I wouldn't be surprised for a second if he did it again this year.

"Idol" pioneered a structure that is now familiar, but is a bit odd: It's really two shows. First, for some weeks, there are auditions. And then, the "new" show begins, when the finalists convene in Los Angeles for the competition. There is an aspect of the early audition episodes that really rubs me the wrong way: the exploitation of rejected singers. I have no problem with "Idol" getting comic mileage out of the William Hung-like auditioners, those people who should know that they're horrendous but try out anyway. These contestants aren't showing any respect for the art and craft of singing and performing, so they deserve no respect in return. And there were no shortage of whack-jobs totally asking for humiliation in this year's auditions (my favorite was the nerdy version of Jake Gyllenhaal -- yes, you read that right -- who couldn't have carried a tune if the judges placed it in a backpack for him).

But where "Idol" drifts into sadistic territory is when the producers present for mocking auditioners who are not good enough, but who take the whole process seriously and are destroyed by their rejection. One moment that stuck out for me was a 19-year-old pretty blonde woman who was probably the most talented performer in her small town, but was clearly not up to the task of being a professional singer. Unlike the Hung-variety idiots, you can completely understand why this woman would think she was good enough to make it onto "Idol." She was shocked and devastated by the outright rejection of the judges, and the way it was handled by the show was far too exploitative for my tastes.

But aside from this low-rent tactic and the unwatchability of Seacrest, I completely see why people like "Idol." It offers an interesting and potent mix, combining the drama of the personal stories (one contestant breaks down crying after making it to the next round, explaining to Seacrest that the show is a chance for him to help his struggling family) and music (if you like the pop genre). There is plenty going on to keep your attention. And the addition of DioGuardi brings a positive new element to the veteran program.

I can't say I'll watch "Idol" as the season progresses, but once the auditions are done, I might take a look at an episode, maybe a theme night when the featured artist is someone I like. Even with its small but significant loss of audience, the "Idol" juggernaut will go on, with or without me. Which is fine. I'll take "Idol" over "Superstars of Dance," any day of the week.