The Scream. The Hug. Heartless. "That guy!" The Reprises. The Handshake. And finally, The Announcement.
Can three episodes rescue a wounded franchise? Is it possible for four young and earnest singers to provide so many stunning, memorable moments in the span of 16 days that it erases four months of suicidal blunders by their producers? We guess the answer is yes, because we just watched it happen. American Idol came into the month of May so dead in the water that the only question was on which side of the boat to jump ship. It left riding high on the waves with a fresh wind in its sails, full speed ahead into a bright future. When was the last time a TV series jumped the shark and then outswam it, all in the same year?
Many years from now, we might look back at the final three weeks of Season Eight as the ones that saved Idol. From the instant that Adam Lambert stomped onstage and absolutely threw down Whole Lotta Love, announcing to America that the game was on and that he had every intention of winning it, to the beautiful moment two weeks later when a tearful Katy Allen ran behind the judges' table to hug the new American Idol champion and remind him that it was his turn to vacuum the sofa, those 16 days reminded we viewers of why we fell in love with this brilliant, infuriating, inspiring, craptabulous show in the first place.
Let's pause and give proper credit to Simon Fuller, Ken Warwick, Simon Cowell, and the rest of the producers and judges. After all, they were the ones who plucked Lambert, Kris Allen, Danny Gokey, and Allison Iraheta from over 100,000 auditioners and so made this unforgettable ending possible. Three seconds, two, one...okay, that's enough. Trouble is, all the screwups and harebrained schemes and contrived twists they perpetrated along the way were just as unforgettable. We'll deal with them later.
The real heroes of this story are the contestants who, absurdly enough, have a better understanding of what American Idol is all about than the people who invented it. They knew it's not about what the focus groups and industry experts said about you, nor how much you'd been pimped. Rather it's about taking risks and pushing yourself, whether the final result is a soaring success or a train wreck of infamy. It's about the purest form of competition: watching your opponent stage 90 seconds of excellence and then, with everything on the line, figuring out some way to top it. It's about reveling in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while letting America know that you fully appreciate how lucky you are.
Pay no attention to what they claimed in their post-competition interviews. The Final Four all dearly wanted to win. That was part of the magic. The closest thing to a "safe" performance in the last three weeks was probably Allen's Apologize, and that was only because he had an ace up his sleeve. The former baseball player understood that you don't risk grounding into a game-ending double play when your best hitter is on deck. One week later, friends or not, Allen and Lambert went toe-to-toe with one another during the Finale, landing body blows left and right. Nobody puts that much effort and hard work into their arrangements because they want "That guy!" to win.
So now that American Idol has caught this fine morning breeze, where will the producers set sail? From where we sit, it appears they're charting the same course in June that they were in April. Namely, straight off a cliff.
It all comes down to Simon. It always does.
As everyone knows, Simon Cowell's contract is up after next season. A recent AOL Television poll found that 49% of Idol viewers said they would no longer watch the show if he were to leave. The producers might find that figure so terrifying that they make him an offer he can't refuse. We hope they restrain themselves, at least until we have our say.
To begin, we think those poll numbers are suspect. Were the respondents led to assume that the alternative was a panel consisting solely of Randy, Kara, and Paula? If so, then we'd have to wager that the sole reason only 49% said "no" is because other 51% went into cardiac arrest before they could give an answer.
More to the point, American Idol isn't the same show that 19E brought to the U.S. seven summers ago. It began as a typically campy Reality TV show featuring typically catty Reality TV contestants who just happened to be able to sing a little (and in a handful of cases, more than a little.) It's since evolved to be, on its better nights, more of an aspiring artist's showcase. Most AI viewers seem to have enjoyed the metamorphosis. Simon, we'd venture to say, has not.
Let's be candid: Simon is bored. He thrives on tension, personality and conflict. He wants to bring order where there's chaos and especially vice versa. Most of all, Simon dearly wants to be right. Not only about who wins the competition, mind you, but about who will become the biggest star afterwards. Being known as the man who "discovered" Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Leona Lewis is what feeds his ego and gets his juices flowing. Shepherding two dozen eager young singers through a four-month journey of personal discovery, on the other hand, has very little appeal to him.
Simon's heart today belongs to The X-Factor, the British series he developed that replaced the original Pop Idol. The competition there is harsher and more heated than what we see on AI. The contestants are oftentimes pitted directly against one another, and the judges (there are four of them) serve actively as mentors, advisors, and kingmakers. In some ways, one might say the judges are competitors in their own right. Contestants are encouraged weekly to play up their backstories. Fan voting doesn't begin until the Final 12; the producers and judges alone decide which semifinalists will advance to that point. And, the focus on the show isn't necessarily who's the best singer, but who has the most star potential – the "X-factor" of the title. Is any of this beginning to ring a bell?
Many of the ill-fated "twists" of Season Eight appear to be the result of Simon pining for his new love and trying to reshape his old one to be more like it. Sing-offs. The drama-focused "boot camp" style of Hollywood Week. The rubber-stamp semifinals. The renewed focus on the judges and their petty infighting. Simon's frequent and pointed references to "star power" and "international success". Even the knowledge that Simon mentored Lambert, and we use that term loosely, with his arrangement of One while castigating his fellow judges for not doing the same with "their" contestants. The Idolsphere, it must be noted, did not respond well to any of this.
Simon is said to be contractually prohibited from bringing The X-Factor to the U.S. while he remains on staff at American Idol. Perhaps it's time to consider the consequences of that clause. Given Simon's long shadow and the producers' spotty history of learning from their mistakes, our fear is that Season Nine will turn out to be much like Season Eight. The only difference is that it will include an unhappy Simon counting the days until he bolts. This serves no one's purposes; it would be like an NFL team playing out the string under a lame-duck coach.
If, on the other hand, Simon signs a contract extension, then rest assured you ain't seen nothing yet. The manipulative and drama-oriented changes of AI8 are only the beginning. American Idol will be exactly like The X-Factor by the end of Season Ten, because with Simon at the helm there's nowhere else for it to go. A personality-oriented focus is what he truly believes is best for the franchise. Presented in that light, we have a feeling that approximately 49% of AOL's recent poll respondents might want a mulligan on their answers.
As many bloggers before us have noted, Season Eight was what it was because Simon Cowell apparently fought and won a behind-the-scenes power struggle. He seems to have convinced the other producers that American Idol had peaked and would die a slow death unless it became more "X"-ified. Nigel Lythgoe was out, Simon became a co-executive producer with Ken Warwick, and the results played out on your TV screen the past five months. When the show's ratings fell significantly, the party line in response was always, "They'd have fallen even further if we hadn't made the changes we did." That curt dismissal has the ring of Simon, too.
The irony is that all of this comes at a time when the contestants and fans have been moving in a totally different direction. As we and The Idol Guy have long written, the Second Idol Epoch has been characterized by more musically-rounded contestants playing to a more musically-diverse audience. The last two winners weren't on the producers' preseason Pimp List. Both were soft-spoken, semi-pro musicians with tons of talent but (and we mean this nicely) hardly any sort of personality to write home about. One even had a very tragic family backstory that he refused to allow the producers to exploit. We can't imagine David Cook or Kris Allen trying out for The X-Factor, a show in which normalcy is a handicap and where smacking down your rivals and sucking up to the judges are critical ingredients to success.
Consider how the Idols of the past few seasons have all but ignored the head-to-head competition aspect of the show. One fascinating tidbit to come out of this year's exit interviews was the amount of time the AI8 contestants spent helping one another backstage with song choices and arrangements. If they were supposed to be clawing each others' eyes out, they obviously didn't get the memo. All understood implicitly that American Idol is not a zero-sum game. They were all in it together, and the better each one performed, the more impressive the entire group would look to a fully-engaged America, and thus the better opportunity each would have for a worthwhile post-Idol career.
Paradoxically, the more the judges tried to interject themselves into the proceedings, the less relevant they became. Asked about some of the critiques they'd received, the Final Four all gave diplomatic answers to the effect of, "Judges? What judges?" They were clearly playing to the audience and to the viewers at home. Their overriding goal was to stage a performance that satisfied themselves and built their fanbases. Nothing sums up this up better than The Hug: the moment after Slow Ride when Iraheta joyfully leapt into Lambert's arms, both realizing that they'd just nailed their duet. (Compare that to the unfiltered reactions from both Gokey and Allen after Simon's critique of Renegade. If their duet, with all its complex harmonies, was supposed to be a contest, then that was another memo that got lost in transit.)
Essentially then, the contestants and fans have been staging a tug-of-war with the producers on which way to steer the ship. Will the Third Idol Epoch be about the contestants, their music, and who can dream up the best way to sell himself or herself to America (both on-screen and online)? Or will it be about the judges, their beliefs on how best to craft a superstar, and how subserviently the kids kowtow to them? This is the crossroads that Idol finds itself at, the one we mentioned towards the end of "Allen's Wrench". Make no mistake: how the powers-that-be respond to this challenge will determine the future of the franchise.
Normally at this time of year we write about what changes we'd like to see in the subsequent season. We felt there was no great reason to follow that script today. The Idolsphere has been discussing improvements to Season Nine for weeks now, and for the most part we'll just echo the many great ideas they've already come up with: a gargantuan drop in producers' manipulation, a return to the Top 24 format, positively no clownish or cannon-fodder semifinalists, permanent execution and burial of the Wild Card Show (for the love of all that is good and holy, Mr. Fuller, please let Ricky Braddy and Jesse Langseth be its final casualties), pimp pieces either for every semifinalist or for none of them, fresher songs, more and longer performances, fewer/better/more succinct/less immature judges, firm respect for the voters' decisions, and a renewed focus on the contestants and their music. If the results of the last two seasons haven't screamed that this is what America wants...well then, forgive us, but obviously we've been laboring under the mistaken assumption that the U.S.A. and Great Britain speak the same language.
However, the most important, wholesale changes to AI this summer need to occur backstage. Despite its phenomenal finish, we still view Season Eight as a failure overall. Too many things went wrong, starting in the audition episodes, peaking in the semifinals, and continuing unabated all the way through to the finish. Keep in mind too, it wasn't like the producers and judges hit the Snooze button on their bumble clock for the last three weeks. They merrily kept bumbling right along: Dance Little Sister? "Early Aerosmith"? Stageside wrestling matches? "An A++ for effort"? "Danny, you were better than Kris"? No Boundaries? Please. They were fortunate that the Final Four managed to drown them out.
We think the best solution is to allow the show evolve naturally in the direction its contestants are trying to take it, which means the opposite way that the producers are pulling. That leaves one 800-pound gorilla to consider. Can Simon, the most competent and respected judge on the panel, abide by this New American Idol? Does he fully grasp the ramifications of Allen's victory and the fans' harsh backlash this season? Can he be happy for the next five years making a two-continent commute to do the only two jobs America wants him to do: find 24 likable and talented singers to present to them, then judge them fairly and impartially for 14 weeks while America alone decides who wins?
If we're being honest, we think the answer to all of the above is "no". This isn't Simon's cup of tea, and he need make no apologies for that. He wants to be an integral player in the game, not merely its best referee. Therefore, we suggest respectfully that perhaps it's best to buy him out of his contract this summer. The sooner the show faces its day of reckoning, the better.
The terms of the buyout could include a two-year noncompete period to give Idol time to complete its transition into the Third Epoch (Simon can concentrate on his Euro X-Factor plans during that time). Afterwards, X-Factor America would let Simon make a triumphant return stateside. There he can focus on himself and his fellow judges, and he can pimp, challenge, browbeat and overpraise contestants to his heart's content – it's all part of the format. Who knows? It might even turn out to be an entertaining show.
Meanwhile, American Idol will continue on its own evolutionary arc: a music-oriented competition focused on the imagination, talent, creativity, personability, and even cooperation (Simon is shuddering right now) of its young contestants. Its "drama" flows naturally from a bunch of unknown singers working their butts off to impress America long enough to build a successful career for themselves. The two shows could even co-host auditions every summer if they chose, with advancers placed on one of two paths depending upon which format they're better suited for. Simon would go out on top and with the sincere and deepest gratitude from all of us – he, after all, is the man most responsible for giving us the most popular TV show of our lifetimes. Hopefully he'll consent to make a guest appearance at the front table from time to time.
Please do not mistake this editorial as advocating that we should throw Simon under the bus – the one he's, ahem, most famous for driving. We're instead hoping to find an equitable, win-win situation for everyone involved. We'd be far from thrilled to see him go, but let's face it, no one can serve two masters, and letting this situation fester for another year would be ridiculous. Idol would surely suffer without him (particularly if the producers don't upgrade the rest of the judging roster pronto), but if Season Eight is any indication, it might suffer even more if he stays.
Besides, the alternative is even more frightening for 19E and Fox. If they allow Simon to turn AI into The X-Factor II, then that would leave a gaping hole among millions of American viewers who strongly prefer the current approach, and who've made their voices heard the last two Finales. That would open the door for a rival network to set up a new singing competition that's more performance-oriented and less conflict-driven. Cook and Allen and the rest of the Second Epoch crew have let the genie out of the bottle, and it's not going back in no matter how hard the producers push.
Someone (we think a TWoP or FoRT forumist but we can't find the link) recently observed that American Idol is unique in that its producers appear to be tone-deaf to their own show. This summer would be an ideal time for them to get fitted with hearing aids. Remember: after "X" comes "Why?", and that's shortly followed by "Zzzzzz".
- The WNTS.com Team