What to Watch: American Idol

I wasn’t sure if I should file this post under Pop Culture Guilty Pleasures or not, but I’ve got plenty of other Guilty Pleasures on deck, and “American Idol” is not a Guilty Pleasure anyway.

This week, “American Idol” comes screaming back into your living room, hopefully replete with everything we love to hate in good reality TV: loopy, nonsensical judges, moderately-talented contestants, incessant famewhoring, endless sob stories, nonstop producer manipulation, and most of all, that paragon of all things that are wonderful in life, Ryan Seacrest.

“American Idol” has implemented some big changes for its new and improved self, including a -gasp!- change of days (what will I do on Tuesday nights until May now??), a major change in judges, and even some changes in choosing contestants.  Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Change in Days
I’m not sure of the logic behind the change in days (and don’t care enough to look it up), but I’m neutral on this.  Ultimately, I’m a next-day-on-DVR type of watcher, so this really has no impact on my viewing.

Change in Judges
This one I’m intrigued by.  I was always a pro-Simon fan, and I never, ever, EVER understood the love for our favorite pill popper, Paula.  I was glad when she left/was fired from the show, because I was nearing the end of my ability to stomach her incoherent ramblings and weepy eyed comments.  Randy is so easy going that it’s hard to dislike him, and as an added bonus, he’s the easiest judge to center an “American Idol” drinking game around.

I know there was intense hatred for Kara when she came on board, and while I wasn’t the biggest fan of the four judging panel (I thought you should have still needed a majority (three judges, not two) to get to Hollywood), I never had a major problem with her.  Because she was a songwriter, I thought she approached the judging with an interesting point of view, but I was neutral on her.  I thought Ellen tried too hard to work as a counterpoint to Simon’s harsh criticisms, but I also didn’t have strong feelings one way or another on her.

Steven Tyler, however, terrifies me.  Specifically, his rubbery, melting face.  He was in the gossips rags quite a bit last year with his health issues and then his band drama, but here’s a guy who was (is?) headlining a major band, a guy who typically would have served as a guest mentor.  In my mind, serving as a season judge on a show whose viewership and credibility are declining, seems like a major step down.  Maybe it’s just me.

For Jennifer Lopez, on the other hand, this seems like a big step up, since she hasn’t been relevant since she wore that green Versace dress to the Grammys (okay, her relevancy was on the rise when she was one half of the Hollywood Vomit Couple “Bennifer”).  Seriously.  Stop right now, and don’t Google or Wikipedia anything.  Tell me the last thing Jennifer Lopez was in.  Tell me the last time Jennifer Lopez put out an album.  Exactly.  Jennifer Lopez is irrelevant.  When “American Idol” signs celebrity judges who need the show more than they need the judge (and we can debate who needs whom more another time), then it’s veering dangerously close to “Dancing With the ‘Stars'” territory.

Other Changes
Some of the changes make no difference to me (record label, band director change, Vegas round), but the other major changes are things I can definitely get behind.

The online auditions are a nice alternative to waiting in line for hours just to be filmed for public humiliation and water cooler fodder.  The flipside to that is I’m sure the online submissions brought out all the crazies with their parents’ camcorder, hanging onto that one time Joe from high school told them they had a nice voice when they sang drunken karaoke at the local watering hole.  (Of course, now that I think about it, that’s probably 80% of the people who show up for the live auditions anyway.)  If there is a God, he’ll make sure we get to see some of these online audition gems tonight.

Season Ten also sees “American Idol” doing away with the guest mentors, which I’m mostly in favor of.  Many of the mentors’ appearances coincided with the latest wares they needed to peddle, and many of them, while respected industry veterans, were so far removed from the “Idol” contestant that their critiques at times felt superfluous.  Having a single mentor will hopefully provide the contestants with a bit more consistency, and result in actual progress and visible improvements (or stagnations, as the case may be).

The change that I’m most excited about is the doing away with the even number of male and female contestants.  I’ve always disliked this – I’ve never understood why Idol would sacrifice legitimate talent just to keep the gender seesaw balanced.  I also love that they’re bringing back the wild card contestants – let us not forget that the sexiest and most fabulous contestant of all time, Clay Aiken, was brought in as a wild card contestant.

My Gripe With Idol, or Why I Preferred The Sing-Off
My biggest, ongoing beef with Idol is the contestant bias that’s evident from the very start.  I know, I know – it’s a reality competition, the producers (think they) know what sells and hooks viewers, and they cut and edit the show to feature their early favorites.

The contestants who typically make it the furthest in the competition are the ones who get the little featurette about their lives – whether you love them or hate them, ultimately you know them.  You can recognize their name and their face, and even if you have a loathing, visceral reaction to them (I’m looking at you, Katherine McPhee, Kellie Pickler, Mikalah Gordon, Antonella Barba, Chris Daughtry), Idol knows you’ll remember them.

A lot of the contestants get to this point because of some tragic life story – fathers in jail, single mothers, barely scraping by.  We’re supposed to feel bad for them because their lives are so miserable, and if Simon Fuller hadn’t brought this cash cow from across the pond, then they’d still be wallowing in their misery.  This in turn clearly makes them superior singers to those whose lives have experienced less, or rather, less overt, hardship.

(Don’t get me wrong – “The Sing-Off” did this too, with their nonstop praise of the Bono/Lennon wannabes mash-up that was Streetcorner Symphony – but the level to which Idol engages in this kind of emotional manipulation disgusts me.  Still, that won’t prevent me from tuning in, and I’ll be sure to share my thoughts with you as the season progresses.)

Before you agree to come along though, you should know: in nine years of near-religious watching of Idol, I’ve only managed to catch one finale – the year the original – and in my opinion, the best – American Idol was crowned.

American Idol premieres tonight on Fox, at 8 PM Eastern.

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