Long before The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, the most celebrated surprise ending in fiction belonged to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. On the (very) off chance that you're unfamiliar with the twist, we won't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it takes place on a snowbound train in the Alps. Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot assembles the 13 suspects, along with two traveling police officials, and offers two possible explanations for the bizarre overnight murder of a fellow passenger – one prosaic, and the other 'fantastic', as Poirot describes it.
Here in 2015 Idol Nation, we have our own mystery to ponder. Actually, we have quite a few, since large swaths of this season left longtime viewers totally befuddled. We'll cover most of these in our season-ending recap editorial in a week or so. Today, however, let's focus on one particular sequence of incomprehensible events: the judges' highly dubious save of struggling Qaasim Middleton, after having declined to rescue the far stronger Sarina-Joi Crowe the preceding week, which was followed by the out-of-the-blue introduction of the Twitter Save. Like Poirot, we'll put forth two explanations, and the reader is free to choose which he or she believes is more likely. As for us, we've already decided.
The prosaic explanation is that the Twitter Save had been planned all along by Per Blankens and his team, just as the Idol publicity machine insisted. The new producers were desperately trying to engage AI with social media after years of Nigel Lythgoe pretending it, along with music from 1990 onwards, didn't exist. The judges were aware of this from the start. They made a good-faith decision not to save Crowe on the first night of the Finals, as that would leave the remaining 11 singers 'unprotected' for one voting period, as it were. Adanna Duru was still in the field, and not only was she similar in singing style to Crowe but she'd also been improving with each outing.
Although the judges could have opted not to save Middleton in the Final 11, they felt his boisterous, high-energy performances served as a welcome change of pace to the typical Idol singer, and there was no contestant like him remaining. The following week, as planned, the Twitter Save came into play.
Um...yeah. That's it. And, we're guessing that that proposed sequence of events went over about as well with you as Hercule Poirot's first explanation did with the authorities. Nobody believed that a hired assassin had secretly stowed away in the coach, killed the treacherous Ratchett in his sleep, and then disappeared into a raging mountain blizzard. So what's the second, more fantastic story?
Years of poor programming decisions had left Fox, once the highest-rated television network in the U.S., mired in fourth place, having not produced a new hit series in nearly four years. Their best hope in 2015 was Empire, an edgy contemporary drama about a hip-hop music company. American Idol would serve as its lead-in throughout the early part of the season.
Hoping to use Empire's audience to stop Idol's own skidding ratings, Fox and 19E arranged for some tenuous tie-ins. The semifinals were held in Detroit instead of L.A., and the second week featured an all-Motown theme. The S14 cast offered an attractive array of strong African-American singers across a variety of styles and genres (though not hip-hop itself, of course, which AI has also famously and foolishly ignored.)
For a while, everything went according to plan: Four of the voters' ten chosen finalists were black, as were both of the judges' wild card selections. It marked the first time in eight years that half of the Finals field were of A/A descent, and it dovetailed perfectly with Empire's swelling ratings. Idol and Empire would decouple after the latter's March 18th season finale, with Idol transitioning to its traditional two-hour shows on Wednesdays and hoping to carry much of Empire's viewership with it.
Immediately, problems arose. The highly-regarded Crowe, who'd reached five stars on both of her semifinal performances, stumbled in her first live outing and wound up the lowest-vote getter. The judges/producers were faced with a horrible decision: use their one and only save in the very first week on a deserving candidate, or allow a front-running black female singer to depart right out of the gate. Painfully but wisely, we'd say, they chose the former, hoping for better luck in subsequent episodes. They didn't get it. That same night, Middleton, another African-American contestant, was low man in the Final 11. Unlike Crowe, Middleton was an eminently justifed elimination after a weak 1-star performance, and his substantial vocal shortcomings meant he'd be given no serious consideration to be saved.
Except, Fox and 19E panicked. They were horrified at the thought of seeing two black singers as the first two eliminations, particularly with the adorable, blue-eyed, and vocally-overmatched Daniel Seavey still chugging along safely. They had nightmarish visions of Empire viewers turning off their TVs in disgust in cities and towns throughout America, never to tune into Idol again. They felt they had no choice: Middleton had to be saved, even if it would be an embarrassing reprieve by AI standards, because the alternative was even more humiliating. The judges were instructed accordingly before the broadcast. But, this would leave the field 'unprotected' throughout the last two months of the season, and American Idol's own TV ratings were simply not in a position to withstand a series of shock boots. (Keep in mind that the F12 and F11 shows were held on consecutive nights, although Middleton's status would not be revealed to the public for another week. To the producers, however, it had to feel like rapid-fire disasters.)
Hence, the Twitter Save, an act of desperation. They felt it was the least of evils -- in particular, that it was better than enduring awful publicity, or to losing face by granting the judges an additional Save. Essentially, they'd allow the AI votership to clean up any messes it made. To forestall cries of unfairness, they'd stream the final 15 minutes of each episode on the Web, allowing West Coast fans so inclined – all six of them – to learn the Bottom Two and tweet their save choice. Serendipitously, Twitter is used disproportionately by African-Americans, at a rate nearly double that of whites, which might even help counteract the historical voting bias against non-white contestants that a WNTS Idolmetrics study demonstrated eons ago, though we're not sure the producers thought it through that far.
Unfortunately, they didn't really comprehend all of the consequences of bolting a Twitter Save onto the end of every episode: the awkwardness, the way it brought the show's momentum to a screeching halt, the pall it cast across the Idolsphere, and most of all the skewed outcomes that are statistically expected when you allow a small subset of your electorate -- people who actively use Twitter, which is somewhere between 7% and 18% of America depending on your source -- to decide an outcome. The narrower the sample set, the more likely that one particular outcome will arise a disproportionate amount. The beneficiary here was Rayvon Owen, who went 4-for-4 and is, in fact, the only human being on the planet ever to survive an American Idol Twitter Save. Owen was in our estimation a deserving finalist and solid midcard candidate who should have finished in approximately eighth place...except, somehow he hit the sweet spot among Idol Twits (er, 'Tweeters', sorry...as readers know, our senior editorial staff is not fan of that particular social network one iota. Nothing personal. Our Junior Editor has a Twitter account, and we expect to be hearing from her shortly once she reads this.) The result was a months-long, season-sputtering mess that hardly seems worse than if Idol had simply let Middleton go out in 11th place, which is approximately where he deserved to finish.
In short, the Twitter Save was something the producers made up as they went along.
Again, you are welcome to accept either of the two explanations, just as M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine had to choose between Hercule Poirot's two solutions. The first is the simpler by far. The second requires you to believe the existence a massive, well-intentioned, clumsily-executed conspiracy among all the players involved – Fox TV, Simon Fuller, Per Blankens, the three judges, everyone in the Idol machine. It would mean everybody done it. Which, ahem, might be why we went with Murder On The Orient Express as the framing device and title source for this essay, rather than The Usual Suspects ("Who is Kaiser Blankens?") or The Sixth Sense ("I See Dumb People.")
- The WNTS.com Team