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Murphy's Revenge

Season 14 wasn't good and wasn't awful, but was it ever unlucky

The streak is broken.  Just not in the way we'd all hoped.

For thirteen seasons, American Idol had followed The Idol Guy's putative three-year cycle of Launch, Peak, Crash.  We've covered it so often in so many of our editorials that we don't even bother explaining it anymore.  The word "epoch" covers all the necessary ground.

Season Fourteen, the second season of the Fifth Epoch, began with tremendous promise, all things considered.  Executive Producer Per Blankens had a year of experience under his belt.  The judging panel was back intact.  The semifinalists looked to have been chosen well, and they spanned as wide a gamut of musical styles as the series had ever offered to America.  AI13 had launched the new epoch by posting a 52 average and culminating in one of Idol's stronger (and quirkier) Final Fours.  The show's Nielsen ratings were still floundering, of course, but perhaps stringing together another entertaining season or two could remedy that.  Everything seemed teed up perfectly for a successful Peak Year; enough so that WNTS editors and readers were prematurely discussing would could be done to avoid the Crash Of 2016.

Obviously, it didn't pan out.  Let us say up front that AI14 wasn't bad.  It took four months, but the season average wound up on the right side of 50.  Take away the seven performances of the charming but overmatched Daniel Seavey and it would have roughly matched AI13's season rating.  But, make no mistake, Seavey was absolutely not to blame for this year's shortcomings.  The WNTS numbers might have been higher, but we think viewer satisfaction would still have been very low.  The season wasn't a failure, just a disappointment.  Oftentimes, that's worse.

Let's take one final look back at AI14, review its highs and lows, and identify the many issues that need to be addressed for American Idol's farewell 15th season.

Act One: The Past

Unlike other reality competitions, American Idol isn't an island.  Each season builds on its predecessors, and so all season analyses have to begin with the prior year.  In that regard Season 14 had received a relatively strong lead-in from Season 13.  No, AI13 wasn't perfect -- far from it, in fact.  It was hugely flawed, wildly uneven, spent far too much time adrift, and frequently gave viewers the impression that everyone involved wasn't quite sure what the hell they were doing there, to borrow a famous line from one of 2014's most famous performances.  This, however, is true in any Year One of an Idol three-year epoch, and most fans understood it instinctively.

(Paradoxically, and despite the show's not-undeserved reputation as high-concept escapist fluff, we've found that its hardcore fans are more knowledgeable and better wired into its matrix moreso than almost any other television series.  They understand music culture, the entertainment industry, the ebbs and flows of developing young talent, the show's history, and the way that no season of American Idol can ever be analyzed in isolation.  When Harry Connick Jr. explains technical terms like 'tonality', the typical Idol viewer doesn't nod appreciatively at home, as Connick imagines.  He or she screams at the TV, "We know that, you pompous %^&*#, now how about critiquing the damn performance?")

Idol was undergoing fundamental changes in 2014 after a disastrous (and, we believe, ultimately fatal) Season 12.  Nearly the entire production staff had been shown the door, and Swedish reality TV guru Per Blankens had been brought in to pick up the pieces.  Patience was warranted, even through a depressingly slow start.

Ultimately, this patience was rewarded.  Four of the 20 semifinalists turned out to be quite good indeed.  The voters cooperated by advancing this quartet week after week.  All gave twenty or more performances, and all posted a 4-star average.  Perhaps best of all, other than the absence of an R&B singer, their musical styles were diverse enough that most viewers could choose a favorite or two to root for, while still respecting the talent of the ones whose artistry weren't one's personal cup of tea.  The AI13 songbook was the most contemporary by far, and its freshness level was one viewers hadn't enjoyed since the middle of the last decade.  Several contestants even had the temerity to trot out original songs in competition.  Three received 5-star reviews.

AI13 was a transition year, and thus far it has produced nothing close to a breakout artist.  Still, in retrospect and from a viewer's perspective, we'd call it a qualified success for two reasons.  One, the songs and performances felt more modern than ever before.  Two, the four strongest singers were permitted to carry the load, and their musical diversity kept the shows from getting too repetitive.  That latter point is perhaps the most germane:  while demographic diversity is not to be trivialized, at the end of the day American Idol works best when the music covers as many bases as possible.

But...and this is a big but...Season 13's success was a house of cards.  For all the little things that went wrong as Blankens and his team got up to speed, a ton of big things serendipitously went right.  The midcard and undercard were very weak, few of the top contestants had memorable personalities, Idol voters are usually fickle and unpredictable, and Blankens' carny-like penchant for inserting artificial tension in every little thing would have been funny (in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way) if it weren't so cringeworthy.  Idol was beyond lucky that they found four fine contestants, and that all four survived into May.

What would Season 13 have been if Caleb Johnson, Jena Irene, Alex Preston and Jessica Meuse, instead of placing 1–2–3–4, had come in 2–3–6–12?  Why, it would have been Season 14, of course.  Thanks for asking.

Act Two: The Present

Straight out of the gate, Idol viewers saw some positive aftereffects from AI13.  Owing to the sharp cutback in airing hours, the audition shows felt more streamlined and focused.  The judges were looking for singers with artistic value as well as musical chops, leading us to believe – incorrectly, alas – that songwriting ability would be a staple of the Fifth Epoch.  Old friend Adam Lambert filled in admirably for Keith Urban at one point.  Many of the auditioners were first-timers; singer-songwriters who likely saw the evolution in Season 13 and thought to themselves, "Hey, I can do that."  There were guitarists and pianists and banjoists and even a goofy blue-haired chick with an accordion – meh, she won't last long.  Simon Cowell must have been rolling in his grave.  Not that he's dead or anything, but you know.

(Incidentally, it took nearly a decade and a half, but give Per Blankens a round of applause: All 24 semifinalists were given reasonable screen time in the pre-competition stages, so much so that the 'Exposure' values for all AI14 contestants in our database are still blank.  Anyone who'd care to split hairs between Promo and Audition, go for it.)

Unfortunately, a familiar bugaboo cropped up in Hollywood: featured contestants who'd had superb auditions simply vaporized into the ether.  Idol loves itself some high drama in this stage of the competition, and we concede that it does make for good TV.  But, frankly, it's counterproductive.  The theory seems to be to put the singers through the meat grinder for a couple of weeks as a stress test to see if they can stand up to three grueling months of competition nights.  Well, okay, but is being able to navigate a poorly-rehearsed group number with a few total strangers truly a reliable indicator of future commercial success?  And, if 19E believed a side benefit of this approach was to provide pre-exposure for future seasons' contestants, a la Hollie Cavanagh, Candice Glover, and Savion Wright...well, uh, Mr. Fuller, about those "future seasons...."  More on this later.

In the end, the semifinalists were a solid, intriguing bunch.  All three judges practically pleaded in the media for patience from viewers.  "We've got a very unusual, eclectic group", offered Keith Urban, while Harry Connick, Jr., addressing one of the most common complaints about AI13's cast, added, "This year the talent isn't only vocal, but performing-wise, too.  These kids are ready to put on a show."

Or not.  The Detroit semifinals turned out to be a microcosm of the season as a whole: they weren't bad, but they weren't very good either.  Much of the blame here belongs on the tired Motown theme used in the second week.  We're certain that this was a network mandated tie-in with Fox's hit series Empire, but whatever the reason, it was a really stupid idea.  The problem wasn't so much the song ages (45 years on average), though featuring such dated music still seems totally orthogonal with the goal of finding a pop superstar in 2015.  Rather, it was the utter predictability of the songs: 15 of 16 (!) had been sung on Idol before, an average of 2.3 times apiece.  Music aficionados – and, as we noted earlier, they make up a disproportional share of the AI audience – could easily rattle off 16 wonderful Motown songs still waiting for their AI debuts ("I Wish It Would Rain", anyone?  Anyone?), but no one at American Idol Headquarters apparently could.

Nine contestants posted WNTS averages over 50 in the semifinals.  The voters, who had done such yeoman's duty in Season 13, chose eight as finalists, along with Seavey and country girl Maddie Walker.  The judges mopped up the one obvious omission, New Orleans bohemian Quentin Alexander.  We thought whimsically at the time that they should have asked for a second save rather than a second wild card pick, but they went ahead and chose Adanna Duru, who as it turned out acquitted herself nicely.  So far so good...

...And then came The Chairs.  This was the producers' major offseason innovation, and it's why – if the series weren't going to be ending after next season – we would be calling for their heads today.  Whoever on that team believed that mentally torturing the contestants on live TV would have no effect their performance quality chose the wrong vocation, and the buck stops at Mr. Blankens' desk.  They had eight full months to prepare for a season with no result shows, and that was the best they could come up with?  Good grief.

The voters, so reliable in 2014, also laid an immediate egg.  After two 5-star performances in the semifinals, Sarina-Joi Crowe stumbled badly and turned out to be the low vote-getter in Week One.   She learned her fate the next night, waiting 50 agonizing minutes in a chair festooned with red lights as her castmates' turned green.  Forced to sing for a save after that ordeal, Crowe came up well short.  That decision was difficult, but necessary.  The judges should not use their only save unless and until they believe that a better use for it is unlikely to arise.  For example, they might need to use it on the entertaining but vocally far inferior Qaasim Middleton in the Final 11 for no apparent reason.  And, they did.  (What the heck were they thinking?  Here's our guess.)

Producers, check.  Voters, check.  Judges, check.  All that was necessary to complete the Grand Slam of Boneheadedness, in March no less, was for the contestants to lose their minds too.  In fairness, they didn't, though neither did they rise like stalwarts to the challenge.  With a handful of exceptions, their song choices tended to be safe and staid, with few venturing far outside their comfort zones.

One who did so routinely was Virginia busker Joey Cook, she of the blue hair and accordion.  Her brilliant jazzed-up Fancy, from Iggy Azalea by way of Postmodern Jukebox, turned out to be the season's high water mark at 87.  It also provided a running funeral vigil of sorts:  as it became more and more apparent that the cast was unlikely to produce a 90 performance directly, the question in WNTS circles became whether or not "Fancy" would adjust upwards in May and prevent AI14 from becoming the first season not to boast a 'showstopper'.  Sadly, it won't.

Forget the 90's, even the 80's became rarefied territory.  AI14 produced the fewest of any Idol campaign except for Season 1 (which had 60 fewer performances) and Season 12.  Partly we'd say this was the fault of the contestants, who we think could have done more, but mostly it was the fault of the format.  Rather than being able to save the finest performances of the night as a climax to the episode, The Chairs ensured that the final memory each week was of weaker contestants warbling in the direst of straits.  If you speculate instead that our polling was somehow skewed this year, as we're aware that many across the Idolsphere have, we must respectfully disagree.  Reviews were down across the board: in web forums, from longtime journalists, and in the ballots sent to us by our Review Crew members.

The producers' other major innovation, likely born out of damage control, was the Twitter Save.  Briefly, God help us, it actually seemed like a good idea.  Rayvon Owen, a solid midcard-level contestant with a sweet vocal tone, deservingly ousted Seavey and Middleton based (we'd hoped) on overall body of work.  Any optimism was short-lived, however:  Owen took out Cook and Alexander the next two weeks, making it apparent to viewers that, whatever the Twitter Save was rewarding, overall body of work perhaps wasn't it.

(Though we cheerfully admit that they were not the best vocalists in the competition, JC and QA brought high innovation every time out.  More of their experiments worked than not, always leaving us wondering what they'd dream up the following week.  For the WNTS team anyway, that's what we cherish most about American Idol, so losing them in back-to-back weeks took much of the air out of the season.  Oh, and Alexander had a verbal dust-up with Harry Connick Jr. that isn't worth wasting too many words on.  Editors Brian and Nick met many years ago on the softball diamond, where macho preening followed by cooling/backing off is standard operating procedure among alpha males.  To us, the entire affair was a big 'Whatever'.)

Owen needed no tweeters' assistance to outlast 16-year-old Tyanna Jones in the Final Five, er, Four, uh,...aw, screw it.  Five contestants had chairs, four performed for votes, Jones got sent home in the middle of the show.  Homecoming visits were next, and since the producers had gone through the expense of flying the Final Four home, they dispensed with the chairs and allowed Owen, Jackie Cole Miskanic (bka Jax), Clark Beckham and Nick Fradiani to sing in a predetermined order so that all of their video packages could air.  The result was the highest-rated episode of the season to date, 56.3, which we think reflects not so much the performance quality but the fact that the singers and viewers alike were relaxed for the first time all year.  Owen was eliminated at the end, to no one's surprise.

That brought us to the Finale.  But wait, you protest – how can there be a Finale when there were still three singers remaining?  We don't want to discuss it.  Eight months they had to prepare for the lack of result shows.  Eight.  Friggin'.  Months.  Anyway, in a stone cold backstage elimination shortly before the curtain rose, the contestant who learned that, just because you spent an entire week rehearsing three songs for the most important gig of your life, including an original written especially for you, doesn't mean you're actually going to be allowed to sing them was...Jax.  The Jersey girl (about 90 minutes from us, if you're wondering) had delivered the second-highest rated performance of the season, Dido's White Flag, plus a 5-star My Immortal the week before.  Her WNTS ratings suggested that her overall body of work was neither as consistent as Fradiani's, nor as strong as Beckham's.  Fair enough, but that was arguably the worst way to get bounced from a Final Three ever, even if Syesha Mercado might object.  As one wag in the Idolsphere quipped, "Next year they might as well just install a trap door."

Beckham had started strong, faded noticeably as the Finals wore on, but regained some of his mojo in the final two weeks.  Fradiani, the oldest contestant in the field by far, had never reached 5-stars but he'd fallen below 3-stars only once (and that a 39), and he was just the second Idol (after AI13's Jena Irene) to finish the Finale with a positive growth trend.  It would be the hare, just getting his second wind, vs. the ever-accelerating tortoise for the crown.  Beckham delivered two strong performances but got saddled with an Original Winners' Song™ that was outside his vocal sweet spot, not to mention neither particularly good nor original – on our Facebook page, correspondent Karen posted a video of her singing along in pitch and tempo, but with the lyrics of Katy Perry's Roar.  Fradiani, meanwhile, got a solid, contemporary-sounding, catchy song with atrocious treacly lyrics – hey, it's an American Idol coronation song, okay?  Beckham perhaps deserved the title if the entire season was equally weighted, but his opponent had been rock-solid since his audition, had made a strong late charge, and got the better single to boot.  Connecticut rocker Nick Fradiani was the fourteenth...and, sadly, second-to-last...American Idol.

Act Three: The Post-Mortem

As we opined before, Season 14 was ultimately a disappointment.  This was a Year Two after all, and in each of the previous four epochs, Year Two had always posted the highest approval rating of the cycle.  We believe that the Blankens Chairs and the godawful, ever-changing elimination process will be the two main takeaways when Idolphiles reminisce about the old days.

Yet, we also feel that AI14 was as uncannily unlucky as its predecessor was charmed.  AI13 could have fallen apart a billion different ways.  There was virtually nothing behind its four contenders.  The judges and producers were obsessed with keeping Sam Woolf in the field for (understandable) demographic reasons, so there's no guarantee that a shock early boot of, say, Meuse would have coaxed a save.  The three original songs performed in its Finals could have been 2-star snoozers instead of 5-star triumphs.  Season 14's field was equally imaginative, considerably deeper, unquestionably talented (the celebrity duet performances during the Finale Results show were as good as they'd been in many years), and covered an even wider range of musical genres than Season 13's.  One season got lucky; the other didn't.  The famous Law's eponymous Murphy slept through one and caught up in the other.  Such is the narrow difference between winning and losing on live TV.

The usual bugaboos contributed.  The holy grail of 19 Entertainment is for American Idol to discover the next Justin Bieber or Harry Styles.  They came sort of close with David Archuleta, but otherwise, let's be frank:  the community of Adorable Teen Boys (ATBs) on AI have been more of a debit than a credit.  Like, a Greece municipal bond debit.  Seavey was the latest to demonstrate that boys mature much later than girls, and that includes their musical aptitudes.  Thankfully, he it all in stride and seemed to have a blast, putting him a clear step ahead of several previous young men who needed to be whisked from their exit videos to trauma therapy.  We wish him all the best, as we do whatever hapless kid will fill that role in the AI15 cast.

Whatever happened to Mikey Duran and Hollywood Anderson?  Sorry, just musing.  The disconnect between the auditions and the Final 24 needs to be addressed.  If people can walk into an audition and knock everyone's socks off, but can't negotiate the haphazard hazards of Hollywood Week, then either fix the latter or don't air the former.  Sheesh.

Song age and freshness by season

Song freshness.  Song age.  Need we say more?  Like "epoch", those are phrases that are pretty much self explanatory.  After a brief reprieve in AI13, it was back to depressing normal in 2015.  In their exit interviews, and perhaps feeling less constrained by a Death Star that's not quite as terrifying as it used to be, contestants began openly griping about the short song lists they were forced to choose from.  Promising themes like 'Get The Party Started' and 'Arena Anthems' included songs that would short-circuit any party and clear out any arena, not that anyone could start much of a party in Idol's horrible 90-second time limit.  One of these years, 19E's chronic addiction to tired playlists and drive-by performances is going to get AI cancelled.  (Hmm?  Oh.  Well, we told you so.)

The choreographies were distracting at best and often utterly ridiculous, like something out of a Spinal Tap scene.  The nadir came when Jax, covering Christina Perri's Human, came within eight inches of disappearing fully into a foggy floor, the product of a dry ice machine that apparently had a dial that went to eleven.  Can you imagine what somebody flipping through the channels that night must have thought?

"What's on Fox, dear?"

"I dunno.  I hear music, but all you can see is this dark, creepy mist."

"Oh, it must be Brigadoon!"

The one saving grace is that Fradiani's coronation single is good.  One must take that in context, of course.  Still, if Fradiani and his accessible, radio-ready voice can produce a hit or two -- something that the AI13 crew couldn't -- then it will make for a fine lead-in to American Idol Season Omega.

Act Four: The Future

This is the part of the recap where we typically stop kvetching and toss out a few constructive suggestions for how American Idol can be improved.  This time around, we'll (mostly) pass.  We'd had a nice mini-essay planned extolling the virtues of Season Eleven.  The field was deep, the musicianship was excellent, and the shows were consistently entertaining.  The winner carved a modest career for himself.  The judges did no good, but they did no harm either.  Even the designated ATB in the field, DeAndre Brackensick, was decent.  (Heejun Han perhaps less so, but he was in fact 22 years old and at least his bone-dry droll sense of humor rivaled only Kelly Clarkson's.)  Were it not for the accursed duets and a couple of otherwise wonderful contestants who needed a crash course in Song Choice 101, the approval rating that year would have set a Wilt Chamberlain-like bar that no singing competition season would ever have approached.  We'd planned to urge the producers to cut the gimmicks, let Harry, Keith and J-Lo fill out a strong field, and then have everyone get the hell out of the way and just them sing, using three stuffed animals to judge them if necessary.

But, it's moot.  S11 isn't coming back.  There's only one season to go, and its theme will be nostalgia, and that's fine.  Besides, it would aggravate us to no end if, for AI15, the producers actually implemented some of our longtime wishes and they worked.  Newer songs, near-full-length performances, less preening by the judges, no shameless manipulation, fewer audition shows, a sensible Hollywood week...um, yeah.  Just in time.

But, there is one change that we practically demand from Fox and 19E, no conditions, no negotiations, no nothing.  And, we never dreamed in a billion years that we'd be saying this.  But...

...bring back Result Shows for 2016.

Look, we HATED those shows.  Typically, none of our staff ever watched them, except maybe to tune in to the last five minutes.  But, the producers failed in every way imaginable to combine eliminations and performances into a single show, making everyone miserable in the process.  We don't want to sit through that again.  Besides, AI will need extra airtime to bring back all of the former contestants and judges who its longtime fans will want to see and to hear sing.  We'd even go so far as to wager that, if they staged 14 weekly result shows during the season, dedicating each one to a single past season of American Idol, it would be the highest-rated "mini-series" in Fox history.  This is a no-brainer on every level.

For what it's worth, we'd also like to keep the two-week semifinals, but without any silly themes.  Three weeks are too many and one is too few, but two weeks are just right – they allow contestants to get over their substantial opening-night jitters and gain confidence before moving to the themed episodes.  Considering the remarkable number of memorable masterpieces that the second week of the semifinals had produced throughout Idol's history, it was a bitter disappointment that just one of the sixteen performances this year will have broken 70 even after normalization.  But, that shouldn't stop Idol from trying again next year.

Oh, and Mr. Blankens, regarding the elimination of duets, the sharp reduction in cutaway shots to J-Lo, and the simple courtesy of displaying the song title and original artist at the start of every performance: Thanks.  Sincerely.

The real "future" is what comes after Season 15.  It's an absolute lock that there will be a Season 16 one way or another.  Fox may put the show on hiatus for a few years.  Alternatively, it might attempt to create a new series with a significantly new format.  We hear Simon Cowell is in discussion with the network on the latter; we have mixed emotions about that but we'll hope for the best.

We'll close with an exchange from our Facebook page.  Correspondents Brecken and Simon were having a conversation regarding Finale episodes.  Both agreed that, more often than not, they would have preferred if the runner-up had won, though the reasons are not always clear-cut.  Editor Nick chimed in at one point with the following:

There's a 'heart' vs. 'head' aspect too. In S12, I actually mildly preferred Kree to Candice, partly because I could see her having more commercial success as the winner. But, if anyone but Candice had won that year, including Kree, it would have been a joke and I'd have been disgusted. She was absolutely brilliant. She played the game as well as anyone since Kris. If she only sold 15 albums, oh well.

Idol sets up a competition that requires a certain type of carefully-planned and executed strategy to win it. 19E's goal is to find the unsigned musical artist with the best chance of being a commercial success. If the necessary strategy and the sponsor's goal aren't in sync, whose fault is that? Certainly not Kris's or Candice's.

What should Idol 2.0 look like?  For starters, how about a show where the two are in sync.  American Idol ran for 15 years uninterrupted, making it one of the most successful television shows in history as well as launching the careers of more successful singers than any series since The Ed Sullivan Show.  And, it did it despite a horrible disconnect between its stated objective and the way its producers went about achieving it.

Combine the two objectives, and Idol 2.0 might run forever.  There must be a way.  We are unqualified to tell the experts at Fox how to do it.  We'll just promise, to future contestants and fans alike, that we'll be here to catalog the performances for posterity if they succeed.

- The WNTS.com Team

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