Is ‘Idol’ idling on autopilot?

[22 April 2008]

By Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

Half the fun of Fox’s “American Idol” has always been complaining about it afterward, so why am I not feeling the love yet this season?

Maybe it’s the seven-season itch, maybe it’s just the circle of life - how long can any show last as a nation’s No. 1 distraction? - but even the hourlong episodes lately seem longer than they should. And anything longer than an hour feels, to use a Simon-like simile, like a cruise to nowhere.

Speaking of Simon Cowell, “Idol’s” sharp-tongued judge seems even more bored than usual, some of his thunder stolen by the once-affable Randy Jackson, who’s been picking away at contestants in recent weeks like they’re the last remnants of the midnight buffet.

And, OK, it might be my imagination, but does Paula Abdul strike you as more lucid than usual?

Sure, it’s a little creepy when she coos to the male contestants like a Mrs. Robinson who reads Tiger Beat, but at least she’s aware of her surroundings.

Still, it’s not the way the judges are behaving now that’s the problem so much as the choices they made going into this season.

Since that very first summer, “American Idol’s” had a dual purpose: finding a future recording star and entertaining us in the process.

As the ratings got bigger and bigger, the process threatened to overwhelm the product. Producers tweaked the format to put more stress on the national audition process, creating a sideshow of bad (and often clueless) singers.

At the same time, Americans, or the subset willing to spend a couple of hours a week hitting redial, began to show an interest in singers who looked nothing like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.

It’s unlikely that the producers who saw the very pretty Kelly Clarkson triumph over the even prettier Justin Guarini that first summer ever envisioned anything like the tuneful but less-photogenic showdown between Season 2 finalists Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, much less the Season 5 victory of Taylor Hicks, a twitchy, gray-haired Alabamian whose personality charmed millions but who’s been eating the dust of fourth-place contestant Chris Daughtry ever since.

Hicks, who lost his record deal not long before this season started, seems to be a cautionary tale for the show’s judges, who this season put together a Top 24 packed with people who already looked and sounded as if they’d made it, from the recently departed Aussie, Michael Johns, to the Carole King wannabe, Brooke White, who might actually be an animated Disney heroine come to life.

Is it a coincidence that a competition that’s showcased plenty of African-American singers of all sizes over the years has only one, Syesha Mercado, in the Top 6 this week? And that she’s a skinny knockout?

Could a Mandisa or a Jennifer Hudson have made the finals this year?

You’ve already heard about the ringers: Some of of the finalists, including Ireland’s Carly Smithson, had record deals or significant professional experience before trying out for “Idol,” and David Archuleta, a “Star Search” winner, would appear to be just the kind of professional child singer that Simon usually abhors.

So, yes, it would appear that “Idol’s” stacked the deck this time around, doing what it could to guarantee a winner who’ll sell records like Carrie Underwood, not Hicks or Studdard.

And it’s done it by treating viewers the way you’re supposed to treat a recalcitrant 2-year-old: letting them choose among acceptable candidates.

This may in the end sell some records. I certainly wouldn’t bet against Archuleta’s first album of inspirational pablum, for which he seems to be collecting songs every week.

I can’t even argue that the overall quality of the finalists isn’t higher this year. They may not be an exciting group, but they can sing. There’s not a Sanjaya Malakar or John Stevens in the bunch.

But if, like me, you watch “Idol” not to see a half-dozen pretty good performances in a row but to watch the week-by-week transformation of a Clay or an Elliott Yamin - or even just for the moment that someone like Fantasia Barrino discovers “Summertime” - well, then this surprise-free season could be both way too much and way too little of a good thing.

Published at: