American Idol 2

“You’re fat, you’re plain, and you’re an ass.” Such were the judgments leveled by one rejected contestant, lashing out at the three American Idol 2 judges, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. Following the tremendous popularity of the first version of Idol, the judges are again selecting a limited number of Idol wannabes out of the thousands who have braved cold and sleeplessness in hopes of getting to Hollywood and the next round of auditions.

A copy of the British Pop Idol, which also spawned identical programs in South Africa and Poland, American Idol follows a simple format: thousands of contestants, ages 16-24, vie for a possible recording contract and the chance to sing in front of millions. Once the judges winnow down the field, viewers vote for their favorite contestants. The high stakes are evidenced by the teary elation of those lucky enough to move to the next round.

The judges appear to take their responsibility a little too seriously, and the show is shot through with a sense of pompous melodrama. The first season gained notoriety because of Simon Cowell’s merciless critiques of the young contenders. Cowell, who starred in the British version of the show, has reportedly been given free rein to humiliate the youth of America in this second season. Simon may have been mean last season. Now he’s meaner.

During the first episodes this season, Cowell was, in his own words, “bored,” which made him rather boring to watch. The worst that he came up with in the first few weeks of the show was the rather tame accusation, made repeatedly, that an appalling performer is “the worst singer in [insert city name here].” But when the regional winners arrived in Hollywood for their next round of auditions on the 29 January episode, Simon was back to form. Looking more energetic, he’s been accusing some contestants of being “a disgrace to the program.” Apparently, he has an investment in the show, if not any particular U.S. city.

The show appears to have a similar investment in itself. At the start of this season, the first try-outs segment was followed by a “Where Are They Now?” special, revealing that all the meanness has led to happy endings. Several of last year’s Idol top-tenners actually broke into show biz. Idol alums have appeared on Old Navy commercials and Boston Public, and a few are making plans to soon release records. The previous winner, Kelly Clarkson, released a hit single soon after the final show and is now completing a film with Justin, the Sideshow Bob look-alike who was first runner up. How nice for them.

The contestants from this season face even greater difficulties. The concept isn’t new anymore, and the competition is stiffer. As well, the diversity of the new contestants promises to add new interest to the competition. So far, the finalists include two plus-size singers (Frenchie Davis and Kimberley Locke), a “rocker” who doesn’t fit the pop mold (Patrick Lake), and a punky Latina with a Mohawk (Vanessa Olivarez).

These initial changes seem to be paying off. So far, the numbers for season two are huge: 26 million viewers tuned in for the 29 January installment, a total that included the series’ all-time high among adults 18-49. The success of the show seems to be that it delivers both humiliation (as on most “reality shows,” say, Fear Factor) and variations on “wholesomeness.”

For the first, the judges are rude on cue and some of the contestants this season have been arguing back. Where the first season featured only Simon’s catty remarks, this season, Fox has granted losers access to a “confessional” room, where they can vent to the camera, if they haven’t already done so on stage, to the judges in person. As well, the producers appear to be trying to brew up a rivalry between perky Julia DeMato and sultry Kimberly Caldwell, whose catfights provided a story arc in a recent episode. Although the two are now competing against each other in the first group of eight contestants, they had made up by the end of the show. On Idol, unlike Survivor, playing nice is an essential part of the pop star persona.

(So is honesty: after last Wednesday’s show, one of the 32 finalists — Jaered Andrews — was disqualified after a background check revealed he was a former member of a Ohio-based hip-hop act, Ordinary Peoples. Another contestant will take Andrews’ place.)

Maybe this emphasis on good sportsmanship by winners means that humiliation tv is on a downturn. Ratings for The Bachelorette 2, The Osbournes, and The Anna Nicole Smith Show are down, while Star Search has been revived and American Idol 2 is thriving. American Idol 2appeals to the desire to see fellow humans degraded, but it also presents the audience with an earnestness absent in both other reality shows and primetime sitcoms.

With this earnestness, American Idol makes celebrity look both accessible and entirely selective. That is, it challenges the idea that anyone, especially the idiotic or self-embarrassing, can be a star. Rejected candidates might get a quick few seconds of notoriety, but finalists get a shot at becoming more respected stars. Combining the dream of pop stardom and the brutal smackdown of the talentless, American Idol rewards the fresh-faced youth of America and viewers seeking someone to cheer on.