On paper, the retooled “American Idol” is working in a way that has to have Fox executives dancing through the hallways. There is buzz about the show again. At almost 24 million viewers, last week’s episode in which the three finalists competed drew 29 percent more attention than the comparable show last season.
By wide margins, the live talent show remains the top series on network television and the top series among younger demographics, from teens up to 18-49s. And records have been set in voting, although this is the first year to allow online in addition to cellphone votes.
But it’s hard to look at what has gone on this season and not think there might be trouble in the wings. The new judges essentially sleepwalked through the season, but in cheerleaders’ uniforms. The finalists to emerge from their gantlet of mostly unstinting praise are a callow, contemporary country duo. And there is competition coming on.
The show’s rules were changed this year to shift the balance toward even younger contestants, a reaction to the Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers of the world. But the finalists competing live Tuesday, with the winner in the nationwide voting announced Wednesday (8 p.m. EDT), are a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, with all that implies.
Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery are likable enough kids, but they come across as young, even for their ages. When McCreery, in that deep country croon, sings to a woman to “lock the door and turn the lights down low,” it plays almost as a cartoon.
Despite a voice with more range and potential than McCreery’s, Alaina has struggled to express personality and to find confidence; she sidestepped the big note — “are you still MIIII-IINE” — that is a key to “Unchained Melody.”
And while the judges, for the past five of weeks or so, have tried to steer viewers into voting for these two, perhaps in the belief that country is the surest path to hits for “Idol” grads, it seems a flawed strategy. Nashville, for all its homogenizing flaws, likes songs about adult topics: divorce, drinking, philandering, family, lessons learned. Even country superstar Carrie Underwood, along with Kelly Clarkson the most successful “Idol,” was 22 when she finished the show.
Meanwhile, the new judging troika of Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and show veteran Randy Jackson has grown progressively less interesting. After the departure of dark lord Simon Cowell, what at first seemed like a refreshing positivity, an eagerness to find what was good in a performance, has gradually revealed itself to be a lack of discernment. These people would be a nightmare in front of you in line at a Baskin-Robbins.
When Pia Toscano, an attractive, 22-year-old belter in the Celine Dion mode who had been an early favorite, was voted out to finish in only ninth place, the judges expressed shock. But what did they expect? On the performance show the night before, they had, all three of them, slathered extravagant praise on every single singer.
Tyler has been an especially exuberant flag-waver. At first a charmingly flaky lounge-lizard figure, he’s just seemed tired lately. The oddball, often profane verbal runs have disappeared, replaced by dewy-eyed but bland praise.
Instead of taking advantage of his secure status as a rock god, the Aerosmith frontman has seemed as eager to be liked as Ellen DeGeneres the season before. But Tyler doesn’t have a talk show to win ratings for or a lack of musical experience to make up for.
Whether he or Lopez will be back next year is an open question: Lopez has only a one-year deal, while Tyler’s is for more than one, but he has said his return was no sure thing. Both have received the publicity bump they needed — Tyler for a biography (and, surely, an Aerosmith tour), Lopez to revive her music career and help sell her new record.
The addition of hit-making producer Jimmy Iovine as a kind of fourth judge has shown some promise, but how critical can he really be about the singers his record company will soon have to produce and sell?
Jackson, meantime, is his usual inconsistent self, asking contestants to stretch musically one week, find a groove and settle into it the next, but almost always liking the performance — even when, for instance, Alaina backed off on “Unchained Melody.”
As all of this plays out, coming on strong in ratings this spring is NBC newcomer “The Voice,” with a new sing-off format and a willingness to let actual adults join the competition.
Luckily for “Idol,” the show — which pits star coaches including Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green against each other — has stumbled after a bang-up opening. Watching the stars pick their “teams” from a bevy of auditioners was great theater. But watching team members battle one another in duets to remain on “The Voice,” at the rate of just four battles per hour, is like watching intermittenly musical paint dry.
Then there is, literally, “The X Factor,” the name of the more broadly based singing show Cowell will debut on Fox in the fall. If it catches fire, it could make the public less hungry for the return of “Idol” next January.
It is doubtful that “Idol” will face a serious ratings challenge as soon as next year. The format is too strong, the habit too ingrained, and — let’s face it — parents have so few other options for something to watch along with their kids. (“Jersey Shore”?)
But the “Idol” brain trust cannot afford to sit on its hands in the offseason. Judges who don’t judge and teen finalists who seem to lack the charisma to actually be idolized are hardly a recipe for long-term success.