How the 'American Idol' comeback season still suffers from same-old, same-old
I have complained often about "American Idol" over the last decade - about mediocre contestants, incoherent judges, lame theme nights, episodes running long, pointless filler, etc., etc., etc. - but I kept watching.
I learned to prune the amount I watched, ditching first the auditions, then the results shows, and eventually last season everything but the Hollywood episodes and then the performances and Simon's comments, but there was something irresistible about the concept itself to me. Even when I didn't much like the contestants (and Crystal Bowersox was the only person I cared about last year), I wanted to see these young men and women get on stage and sing, hoping against hope that this would be the week we'd get a performance akin to Kelly Clarkson doing "Stuff Like That There" or David Cook doing "Hello" - that feeling of being in on the ground floor of someone mastering their own prodigious talent.
This season, though, I kicked the habit. It was the morning before the top 7 finalists were due to sing songs from the 21st century - the latest in a seemingly endless string of open-ended theme nights designed to let each contestant stay in his or her comfortable box, not having to change in the slightest - and I just didn't have the patience for it anymore. I would read Fienberg's recaps, and on occasion watch performances on YouTube the next day (Haley recovering from the faceplant last week was kind of fantastic), but otherwise I was okay no longer having "Idol" as a weekly presence in my life.(*)
(*) And you can feel free to take that caveat into account when considering some of what I'm about to write. Fienberg and others insist the season and contestants didn't change substantially from the time I stopped watching, but still...
And the thing is, on many levels, the season to that point had been significantly better than the last several years. Producer Nigel Lythgoe had returned after a few seasons away, and you could tell there was a firmer hand at the controls. It helped that the Wednesday performance show took on a semi-permanent 90-minute format, so there was never danger of running long anymore, but the show overall moved more briskly, the results shows on occasion seemed to vaguely resemble actual entertainment and not just filler, and dumping the four-judge format was a huge improvement, especially since new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler seemed much happier to be here than Kara or Ellen ever did, or than Simon did his last year or two as he waited for his contract to run out so he could do "X Factor."
Most importantly of all, we had one of the deeper pools of talent the show had offered in recent memory, with no obvious frontrunner and lots of singers who could plausibly make it all the way to the end.
So what led me to give up on a season where the show has rebounded in the ratings and demonstrated that there's very much life after Simon Cowell?
Well, it turns out that firmer production, a deeper talent pool and more enthusiastic judges don't help if all the groups become incredibly complacent almost immediately.
Tyler and J-Lo made it clear right away in the live shows that they had no interest in saying nothing negative to any contestant, ever. Everyone was a beautiful, glorious gift to the universe in general and the music industry in particular. For a couple of weeks, the historically useless Randy Jackson realized that it was now his burden as senior judge to actually call out the mediocre, safe performances, but he didn't have the stomach for it and quickly reverted to his inane bag of meaningless catchphrases. (So-and-so "is in it to win it!" was this year's champ.)
And it's not that the show needed any of the judges to be cruel in the way that Simon could so often be. It just needed one or more of them to point out when someone was off-key, or when they didn't seem to understand the meaning of what they were singing, or - most importantly, given this group and this season's format - were giving the same performance week after week after week. Simon might have been blunter than he needed to be, but he would have called out Casey Abrams for being self-indulgent well before Casey got eliminated the first time and had to be saved by the baffled judges, and he sure as heck would have told Pia Toscano to stop being a robot who just marched to the center of the stage to sing the same kind of lifeless ballad every time out.
Pia's early elimination took a bad situation with the judges and made it worse. In the weeks leading up to that, J-Lo had started to dip a toe into the waters of constructive criticism. She was still sunny and happy, but she was at least making an effort to suggest ways in which some of the singers could improve themselves. Then Pia went home the week she followed that advice and did a mid-tempo number (even if it was only marginally different from all the ballads), and you could see J-Lo and the others panicking and retreating back to the safety of non-stop compliments.
So what should it matter if the judges are positive all the time? Are the voters all just sheep who only did what Simon told them to do? No, but the judges' comments ideally do help both the voters and the singers. Simon was frequently able to shake predictable contestants out of their complacency - and/or scare their fans into voting extra-hard for them that week - with a well-aimed rebuke. And because he was willing to be consistently negative, his compliments actually meant something. If he had praised Pia as highly as J-Lo or Tyler did - while being more sparing in his compliments for some of the others - that would have had an effect on the results.
Instead, everyone was awesome all the time - getting consistent A+ reviews for a string of mostly B and B- performances - and it gave no one a reason to do anything differently. In the introductory video for his performance on Songs from the Movies Night, Scotty McCreery (who goes into tonight's final round as the clear favorite over fellow country-singing teen Lauren Alaina) explained that he had rejected a suggestion to do Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" in favor of George Strait's "I Cross My Heart." because "I'm kind of going back to my country roots." These were roots he had clung desperately to every week he'd been on the show - on Elton John Night two weeks before that, he somehow found the one country song in the John catalog, for instance - and roots the producers and judges were eager to see him stick to. How can you go back to something you steadfastly refused to leave for even a nano-second?
Lythgoe insisted on going with these broader themes because it spared, say, a country singer from having to do disco, but while the narrower theme nights often led to the worst performances, they also at times pushed the contestants to test their limits and do something special. (Cook doing "Music of the Night," for instance, on Andrew Lloyd Webber Night. Or even Carrie Underwood doing "Alone," which was on a broad-themed night but one where she chose to challenge herself in a way nobody's asked to anymore.)
There was no surprise, no sense of discovery this season. Most of the contestants entered the finals believing themselves to be fully-formed, and neither the judges, the producers nor music mentor Jimmy Iovine seemed interested in pushing them to be anything else. (A few contestants like Casey and James Durbin changed up their styles from week to week, but the only contestant who seemed to evolve significantly was Haley Reinhart, who bottom-surfed her way to the final 3 and seemed to be the only person the judges could ever find a negative word for.) Scotty's going to win, and he'll probably sell more records than the last few winners (country-singing "Idol" finalists have a better commercial track record than those in any other genre), but he'll have done it by giving variations on the same two performances - Sensitive Balladeer Scotty and, occasionally, Cocky Up-Tempo Scotty - over and over again.
Last week, the Hollywood Reporter published an oral history of how this season came together, and all the producers and FOX executives involved sounded pleased as punch with themselves. And why wouldn't they? The ratings have improved, J-Lo is a big star again, and the only Simon Cowell questions the media is asking anymore are about how he'll do without "Idol," rather than the other way around. I may have lost my patience with the show, but for now, at least, the audience at large sure hasn't.
But for as long as I watched - and, based on what I've gathered about how the season went after I stopped - this has been among the more tedious "Idol" seasons to date. In the past, when the show took a creative stumble, the producers made it clear they would try to do things differently to keep the franchise going. But until the ratings dip, I can see the producers becoming just as complacent as Scotty McCreery's been all season. And what fun is that?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org