One week into a typical American Idol finals, most of the Idolsphere is usually ready to (a) fire the judges, (b) throttle the producers, and (c) trade the entire contestant pool for three cheesesteaks and fries. And more often than not, we'd be willing to forego the fries.
Thus, it's a measure of progress that Season 10 has, so far anyway, kept most of AI's critics on a diet. There's still plenty to complain about, of course, and if the producers get the slightest bit complacent the situation can change in a hurry. Here are three bits of data that we like about the new season...and three that should keep 19E on its toes.
1. Spreading The Wealth: Our first Top 10 leaderboard of AI10 comprises eight different contestants, with only Pia Toscano and James Durbin on the list twice. Contrast that to Season Nine, which probably ought to be renamed Crystal Bowersox and the Eleven Dwarfs. Of course, it's still early and most contestants have only had two performances thus far. Still, tenof the Top 13 have posted at least one 4-star or better rating, eleven (including Karen Rodriguez) have been above 50, and a twelfth, Haley Reinhart, has been in solid 3-star range both times out. It's a nice change of pace to hear Ryan Seacrest announce who will be singing in the next set and not feel the need to cringe.
2. Professional Mentors: It always brought a smile to our faces in past seasons when the contestants first met the Mentor of the Week. We fondly remember Elliott Yamin being brought to near-tears upon seeing his lifelong idol, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Johns shyly telling Dolly Parton that she was the first person he'd seen in concert. Still, those sincerely touching moments couldn't make up for the fact that with a handul of exceptions (Barry Manilow, Shania Twain, Usher, Andrew Lloyd Webber), most AI mentors were about as useful as an ejector seat in a helicopter. By bringing in top-flight record producers, including the likes of Jimmy Iovine and Don Was, Idol may or may not have improved the average performance quality (the jury is way still out on that), but they have made the pre-performance clips interesting, engaging, and generally worth paying attention to again. That in itself is a near-miracle. (Note that this innovation would have been less effective in previous seasons, where there were always a handful of finalists whom no mentor could have salvaged.)
3. Fastidious And Precise: Well versed in etiquette, too. Evidently the "Killer Queen" of reality TV is Nigel Lythgoe, whose return has brought some blessed order back to Idol broadcasts. So far the episodes have been crisp and well-paced (with, all joking aside, a major assist from Ryan, who looks and feels far more in charge this season.) Not only did AI comfortably pack 13 performances into two hours on Wednesday, it actually ran a little short, requiring Ryan and the judges to banter a bit after Naima Adedapo's final performance. We're hoping that the Top 12 show cuts back to 90 mintues, but if not, surely the Top 11 episode will.
Of course, it wouldn't be American Idol if we didn't also have a few...
1. Spreading The Wealth: Wait, didn't we say we liked this a minute ago? Yes, but it's our blog and we reserve the right to change our minds in mid-editorial if we choose. So far, all four AI10 episodes have come in with an average rating above 50...but that alone isn't enough to make for a great season. Check out the Finals episode ratings from Season Nine, for example. In a season that the Daily Beast's Richard Rushfield bitingly dubbed "Idol's annus horribilus", nine of those eleven shows rated above 50. The problem was twofold: one, a small number of contestants, led by Bowersox, champion Lee DeWyze, and a few others all but carried the rest of the field, and two, just three episodes spiked above 55 (two of which came in the final month, after most Idol fans had dozed off.) AI10 has been pretty good so far, but to really light up the nation's water coolers on Thursday mornings it needs a truly great episode, a Can You Top This? epic along the lines of S1's Big Band Night or S5's Bon Jovi Night or S8's Rat Pack Night or even S7's Lennon-McCartney Night (which, without the unfortunate twin train wrecks at the end, might have been the highest-rated episode ever.) We haven't enjoyed one of those in a very long time.
2. Professional Mentors: Yes, we're happy to see that when it comes to the Idols' musical education, Celebrity Amateur Hour is no more. Still, we're a little leery about what comes next. One of the few, true joys about American Idol is watching a contestant grow from week to week. Bar singers, church choir members, and regional theater leads are suddenly forced to come up with something fresh and different each week under excruciating pressure. True, this produces more disasters than triumphs by a long shot, but those infrequent triumphs (and you can insert your favorites here) are what makes us tune in each week. It's difficult for us to imagine that an A-list producer would risk his reputation by allowing, say, a Kris Allen to deconstruct Heartless the way he did. We won't break out the worry beads just yet, but we admit to being more than a little uncomfortable that almost all of the 13 performances this week featured down-the-middle arrangements and (*gulp*) no musical instruments to be seen, almost like we were watching AI2 Rewind. As we've written before (along with our friend The Idol Guy), that genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.
3. Fastidious And Precise: Even if we're generally pleased about Lythgoe's return to the show (and, sincerely, we are), we can't pretend that there aren't a few concerns. The biggest among them: Lythgoe has been an outspoken defender of the traditional Idol musical playbook – lots of old, big power ballads, in other words. We're watching the average song age and song repeat factors closely. So far the former is hanging around 24 (that'd be 1987): not great, but still better than the past few seasons. The latter, however, is now nearing 50%. We know we'll never get that Indie Music Night we've always dreamed of, but we do hope 19E keeps one thing in mind: the last thing they want to do is incessantly remind viewers of the past few seasons. Repeating their songs over and over is not the way to do that.
(Postscript: several correspondents have asked us to revisit our list of Exposure Levels for the AI10 contestants, asserting with good backing evidence that a few more of the Top 24 should have been listed as having Promo exposure. We were going to do that this week, but we're out of time -- we'll get to it next weekend, promise. - Ed.)
- The WNTS.com Team