So here we are once again, in late February, three months away from this season's coronation at the Microsoft Theater in L.A., flush with excitement at the fifteenth and last set of finalists having been revealed, and....
...um, wait. The Finals just started on Thursday, but there are only six weeks until the Finale? Huh. Apparently, AI15's abbreviated schedule is American Idol's tribute to the late, great David Bowie: "Wham, bam, thank-you ma'am!". (Incidentally, as the lack of an artist hypertag indicates, count Bowie among the many magnificent artists of the past 50 years who has never had an original song covered on AI.) Our editorial staff was stunned to hear Ryan announce the timetable this week. Yes, we knew about the ten-person finals, and the double elimination, and that the judges save had been retired. But, we were unable to process the implications of all that while reading a calendar. Per Blankens must have had more of an effect on us than we realized.
Anyway, we're happy to be back for Idol's "farewell" competition (more on that later). We have no particular urgent topic to discuss this weekend, but we do have a lot of loose ends to clean up. Let's get started quickly before Fox speeds up the schedule even further. We'd like to finish before the series does.
Season 15 so far in one word: 'meh'. But, it could get a lot better very quickly.
Your loyal and aging three-person WNTS staff watched virtually nothing of the auditions and only a little bit of Hollywood week. We were following most of the action on YouTube and AI.com, because, honestly now, you can easily squeeze the first month of any American Idol season into a one-hour binge-watching session. It's more efficient and far less aggravating.
Anyway, this year we came to a conclusion rather early on. Recall that we've always been generous with praise for Jennifer Lopez's casting skills. In her previous four seasons as a judge, her on-screen critiques have been uneven at best, but the lineup has always been deep, solid, and justifiable. Not always "good", mind you – like anyone else, she's put through her share of duds. There always have been and always will be promising singers who wilt under the pressure of singing before a big studio audience and an exponentionally larger television audience.
This time around, though, respectfully speaking: J-Lo and the boys coughed up a hairball. For the first time since Season 12, we'd say without qualification that there was a lot of mis-casting. It's impossible to say whether or not there were better candidates in Hollywood – those episodes are so heavily edited and massaged before airing that it's like trying to identify a particular pig in a can of Spam. But, it was clear from the get-go to us, and to most of our correspondents, that about one-third of the Final 24 could safely be sent home before the semifinals even got underway. (We wonder if that was the motivation behind no-viewer-voting in the first two weeks. The Idol machine may have recognized that their field was too thin to afford any accidents.)
The albatross of Season 15 has been the near-total lack of a midcard. This is the most top-heavy of any American Idol season; AI8, AI12, and AI13 included. The leading seven contestants have all averaged a 58 approval rating or higher. None have fallen below three-stars on any performance; just one has seen the wrong side of 50.
After that, however, the roof caves in. The other 17 semifinalists were, by and large, dreadful. Stephany Negrete's lone 46-rated performance ranks her eighth overall; four others finished with averages in the low-to-mid 40's. Just two – Jenn Blosil and Jeneve Rose Mitchell – broke 50 even once, in 27 tries. A whopping eleven Fifteeners posted two-star averages; three are still alive despite having given nine performances so far that have maxed out at 36. Maxed. And, at least one of them will sing at least once more. To put this in the proper perspective, observe that even the five male finalists of Season 12, Lazaro Arbos included, averaged 40.
Had Negrete, Blosil, and Mitchell rounded out the Top 10, things may have turned out somewhat better. Negrete could sing a little, and the two Jens were at least interesting (even though, we admit, we personally abhored three-fourths of their competition performances.) Every season has its contenders, and every season has its duds. As the Idol Guy observed many years ago, the strength of the midcard is what drives the first half of the finals. Season 11, remember, had the likes of Erika Van Pelt, Jeremy Rosado and DeAndre Brackensick producing capable-to-good performances that filled out the early episodes. In contrast, Season 12 had...aw, let's not discuss it.
Fortunately in 2016, with just ten finalists and a pair of double-eliminations right out of the chute, the midcard wasn't going to have much of a shelf life regardless. The shortened season means we'll get to the main event by the second week of March...provided the voters cooperate, that is. The seven contenders are averaging nearly 66 thus far. No previous year, not even AI11, staged a midseason episode with a Cast Rating that high. The Final 10 show seems to have buoyed the spirits of the Idolsphere. All of this could make for one hell of a fine finish to Idol's run.
The catch, alas, is that the three trailers – Gianna Isabella, Lee Jean, and Tristan McIntosh – are all likeable, cute as buttons, talented, overmatched...and fifteen years old. We can't see Isabella lasting beyond this week, but BGWG Jean and country girl McIntosh are the sort to whom the voters often give overlong passes. Well, if so, maybe they'll find the right song and rise to the occasion. We'd still rather take our chances with the other seven, though.
Two quick shout-outs to two Idol women who earned them this week. Kelly Clarkson was outstanding as a guest judge. Her rambling but sincere, insightful, and often hilarious self-deprecating commentary was Emmy-worthy. "Piece By Piece" was just icing on the cake.
And, while executive producer Trish Kinane was hired merely as a caretaker to put AI to pasture, she's shown an immediate grasp of the basics of being an effective general manager: keep the good (reasonably fresh music, clean pacing, song/artist credits on-screen at the beginning of every performance) and get rid of the godawful (light-up chairs, end-of-episode eliminations, Twitter saves), instead of the other way around. For an example of the consequences of the latter approach, see the Philadelphia Eagles' personnel decisions the past few seasons.
Longtime correspondent Ryan was at the Tuesday studio taping of the Wild Card show, and he reports (as many have before him) that there is a huge difference in perspective between hearing the performances live and watching them back on TV. Ryan singled out McIntosh in particular: he felt that her cover of What Hurts The Most, ironically enough, was hurt the most in translation between the studio and the playback. (In particular, he noted, "...I understood Keith's praise while I was there.") On the plus side, Ryan reports that the TV version of Thomas Stringfellow's 14-rated Story Of My Life was "...actually an improvement." It was a fascinating read.
Being denizens of the East Coast or the high Canadian plains, no member of the WNTS staff has ever attended an AI taping. Perhaps if we had, we'd have a better appreciation for the judges' difficult task. We'd still be just as snarky towards them. Just more appreciative. Perhaps.
Anyone who's spent a lot of time rummaging through the website knows that parts of it are very outdated. The Links page, for example, references sites that no longer cover American Idol, or that aren't actively maintained, or that no longer exist at all, or that perhaps were only figments of our imagination in the first place. Many database pages have text that hasn't been updated for epochs. And, our longstanding goal of making WNTS a wiki, where registered users could contribute summaries of every episode, contestant and performance, will probably never come to pass.
Prose aside, we haven't put too much effort into adding technical functionality to the site lately. As it became clear Idol was winding down, there wasn't a whole lot of motivation to do much among our Software Dept. (Our latest pipe dream, if you're interested, is to automate the algorithm we use for approval ratings, which is currently spread across a bunch of Excel spreadsheets. Then, we'd add a database editor plus balloting software, and voilá – a pretentious French word! Um, wait. Let's do that again. And voilá – an open website whereby you could set up a database for cataloging The Voice or any other talent competition involving rated and ranked critiques! This has only slightly more chance of happening than the wiki, of course, and both are only slightly above pipe dreams involving the Powerball. But yeah, someday, maybe, we wish....)
For AI's final season, however, we have one change in the works that our visitors will appreciate. Tabling throughout the site is kind of clunky. We do support pagination, limited filtering, and sorting, but it's far from ideal. We want to leave WNTS in some sort of respectable shape for archaeologists. One way to do that is to replace all of the clunky tables with sleek JQuery-based ones that offer far more flexible searching, filtering, sorting, and presentation features. The wiki and the balloting software aren't looking too likely, but we'll at least get this finished before Idol closes up shop.
From the Nostalgia Dept.: For no particularly good reason, there is a region in our trusty Excel spreadsheet that tracks the percentage of each contestants' ordinal rankings that fall into the Top 3 and Bottom 3 each night. It serves no purpose whatsoever. It's been there since forever, and although we often think about deleting it (it causes us to have to do more scrolling that we'd otherwise have to), we never have. Inertia isn't truly a fundamental physical force, but if it were, it might be the strongest in the galaxy.
Anyway, this week we were happy to have kept that block in place, just for the eye-popping numbers. The trio of AI15 15-year-olds had a very rough night. Isabella was in a staggering 94% of individual reviewers' Bottom 3's. Jean was in 87%. McIntosh was in 86%.
To put this in perspective, we went back to the last time we could recall when there was a Hindmost 3 on AI so clear-cut: the Final 10 of Season 5, when Lisa Tucker, Kellie Pickler, and Ace Young (oy, Ace, the scar – what where you THINKING?) kicked off the show with three straight 1-star performances. That threesome were panned far more harshly than Thursday's, and as a result their individual approval ratings were about ten points lower on average than their Season 15 counterparts.
But, as you'll note, the S5 trio's standard deviations were much higher as well. That was reflected in the Excel Bottom 3 Table: Tucker was in 84%, Pickler in 75%, Young in 82%. Chris Daughtry was the contestant who most often bumped one of that threesome: he was in the B3 on 20% of the reviews, and Katharine McPhee wasn't too far back at 18%. Yes, that Chris Daughtry, and that Kat McPhee. AI5 is considered by many the best in the show's history, but on that particular nutso night, you'd have had a hard time convincing contemporary viewers of its future legacy. At 40.9, it will almost surely hold forevermore the title of Lowest Rated Finals Episode in American Idol History.
Did we just say forevermore? Barring a particularly grotesque elimination pattern, it seems impossible that AI15 can produce a stinker of a show to get beneath it. The top seven are simply too strong. But, anything is possible in AI16 and beyond.
Yeah, we're still convinced there will eventually be a Season 16. We doubt very much it will be back in 2017, if only because the judges and producers will be on to other projects, and Fox's executives would be reluctant to lose face with such a quick retreat. Our guess is 2019, though 2018 is possible. The ancient, decaying, over-the-hill, too-expensive dinosaur of a show has been in the Nielsen Top 10 every week so far this winter. It can definitely use a hiatus. But, it'll be back. Maybe with Kelly Clarkson as a judge.
Perhaps by the time it returns, we'll even have all those cool new software features in place. Perhaps.
- The WNTS.com Team