by Michael Abernethy

9 June 2003


People Skills

I am sick of American Idol. I’m sick of hearing about it, reading about it, seeing ads for it, opening up USA Today to see the entire “Life” section devoted to what happened on last night’s episode, turning on Entertainment Tonight to be subjected to nightly American Idol background stories, and every day hearing tidbits about Kelly, Justin, Rueben, Clay, Ryan, and, most of all, Simon. I don’t care if Clay got ripped off or if Kelly’s CD has been bought by every person in the world except myself. I admit that the four finalists from the first two seasons are all exceptional singers, but they are just that—singers, not saviors.

What bothers me most about American Idol is the apparent glee that so many people take in watching people embarrass themselves. One of the show’s main draws is Simon Cowell, who doesn’t have a successful day at work unless he has brought someone to the brink of tears. He’s unnecessarily harsh on the good contestants, and he’s just cruel to the bad ones. And from what I’ve gathered, one of the show’s most popular features are clips of those contestants who, bless their little hearts for trying, aren’t ever going to be stars, not even at the neighborhood dinner theater. The thrill lies in watching these folks fall flat on their faces, so Simon can pounce.

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Cast: Joey Fatone
Regular airtime: Wednesdays 8pm ET; re-airings on Bravo


Granted, American Idol isn’t the only show to feature this format. Talent-driven game shows have been popular since Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the early ‘50s, but never before has the genre been such a force in tv programming. Now, we can watch people stumble or fly in their attempts to be America’s next big country-western star, junior singer, senior performer, comedian, model, director, screenwriter, and sex god or goddess. Not all of these shows feature scathing critiques, although several do, but each makes a point of showing the auditions of the really bad contestants so we can laugh at their foolish dreams.

Surprisingly, perhaps, NBC’s new talent show, Fame, does not solicit my disdain. It doesn’t for one reason: Debbie Allen, the respected director, producer, actress, dancer, and choreographer. Her association with the concept of Fame dates back to the 1980 feature film of the same name, in which she played the dance instructor at Manhattan’s School for the Performing Arts. She reprised the role in the television series based on the film, where she also took on the jobs of choreographer and, occasionally, director. And now, she’s the driving force behind Fame-as-reality-tv.

Allen says she’s on a quest to find a “triple threat,” a singer-dancer-personality. The series’ two-hour premiere focused its first hour on Allen’s auditions in four major cities throughout the United States. Through these auditions, viewers are introduced to the one element that distinguishes Fame from similar series—compassion.

Allen is not about denigrating or humiliating those who appear before her. She doesn’t insult or ridicule. Instead, she focuses on building confidence in her young subjects. Even those whose auditions were atrocious didn’t hear derision from Allen, although she was never dishonest and didn’t give contestants false hope. She delivered her comments with a smile or a laugh, and shared with contenders what they already knew—they just didn’t have it. It’s hard to imagine that anyone out of the thousands who auditioned left feeling like he or she was wrong for having tried.

Allen’s handling of the contestants is best exemplified by her interaction with a 16-year-old girl named Kim. Unable to do the dance steps that a group of competitors had just been taught, Kim walked off the stage quietly and returned to her seat in the auditorium. Allen stopped the others, then coaxed the girl to dry her eyes and get back on the stage. By the time Allen was finished, not only did Kim return, but the other contestants were cheering for her and shouting her name. Kim didn’t make the cut, but she undoubtedly was prouder of herself when she left than she would have been had she been in the room with Simon Cowell.

Allen again demonstrated people skills during auditions in Chicago, the third set. During one group’s dance routine, she singled out one young lady and asked, “Where do I know you from? Wait. You auditioned for me in New York, didn’t you?” After seeing hundreds of contestants, the fact that Allen remembered her made the young woman feel special, and on this occasion, she did make the cut, which she hadn’t done previously.

Allen encourages her contestants all the way to their performances in the finals. The 24 finalists in this first episode were sent to Allen’s dance studio for intensive training and rehearsal. She was tough and precise, and worked diligently to turn those whose specialty was singing into dancers and vice versa, relying along the way on a variety of pep talks. Still, Allen doesn’t come across as a cheerleader. She is always professional, but clearly believes in showing young people their potential, if not in the entertainment field, then in life. Once each contestant makes his or her finals appearance, Allen is on stage with words of praise and congratulations.

For all the good that Allen brings, she is not the series’ focal point. It’s the contestants. The finalists are all competent, but pretty much interchangeable with the contestants from Star Search or Idol, aspiring performers who have yet to learn that good music has nuances and that belting out every note or running the scales may not be the best approach to every song.

And while their dancing is serviceable, a few of them could use some pointers from host Joey Fatone, the most energetic dancer in ‘NSync. Here he’s agreeable, although at times, it is clear that this sort of gig is new to him. This is most obvious in his bantering with the judges—manager Johnny Wright, singer Carnie Wilson, and DJ JoJo Wright, who are all tactful and honest in their appraisals of the contestants. Still, Allen is the highlight. Her energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and she is the reason I sat through all two hours of the premiere, and why I returned this week for the second episode.

To be honest, it really doesn’t matter to me who wins, although some of the contestants are obviously more deserving than others. If you are drawn to talent game shows to evaluate potential new stars, then Fame may be of interest. If you are drawn to such shows to laugh at the foolishness of folks in over their heads, Fame is definitely not for you. But if you would like to spend part of your summer with a woman who is a positive role model for kids and adults, someone who knows the value of positive reinforcement and how far a few kind words can carry a soul, then spending your Wednesday evenings with Debbie Allen is a must.

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//Mixed media