American Idol

Auditions remain 'American Idol's' weakest, sappiest link

Feb. 8, 2012 at 8:51 AM ET

Thousands lined up in Houston for a chance to become the next "American Idol" on Aug. 26, 2011.

“The Voice” picked up a huge post-Super Bowl audience on Sunday night, throwing down the gauntlet in the reality-show race for ratings and making the case that watching four celeb judges turn their chairs around at pivotal moments in auditions is must-see TV. “American Idol” responds this week by moving out of its own audition episodes and into the Hollywood round.

And thank heavens for that, because the auditions are the one part of the singing show experience that “Idol” perennially gets wrong. They’re always long and brutal. (Who thought that people would want eight hours of musical job interviews, anyway?) But this year’s tryouts set the bar for unwatchable episodes.

“Idol’s” auditions blatantly manipulate audience emotions by playing up the life stories of people who will eventually wind up being stealth eliminations in Hollywood, getting the viewers to care for a few minutes about folks they will never hear from again. It’s just a nonstop series of home videos with the occasional two minutes of music sprinkled in-between.

This year’s were the worst, because the episodes were so formulaic that the show looked like it had been done on autopilot: The credits begin. Ryan stands in front of a big crowd. The judges walk into the hotel. Steven Tyler shows up dressed in something random that he fished out of the costume closet and says something wacky. All three agree on the first singer, who usually moves on. Commercial break. Touching footage of the obstacles that the next contestant faces. Repeat for 60 minutes.

“Idol” made a conscious choice this year to avoid the truly terrible auditioners. We had the occasional Phong Vu, who was bad enough to be pitiable, but there was a pronounced lack of random folks with big dreams, big egos and tiny voices who existed in previous seasons to give former judge Simon Cowell his recommended daily dose of mockery.

The current trio of judges doesn’t have the cruel streak, so adding more of those people would be pointless. But with the absence of the truly horrible, the show doubled down on the waterworks, turning the first seven episodes of “Idol” into a stretch of can-you-top-this sob stories.

At some point, all of those tearjerkers run together. We’ll see someone this week in Hollywood and be thinking, "Wait, is that the single mom from San Diego who works five jobs and brought along her daughter? Or the one from Portland, whose husband was a basketball player and cheated on her? Or the one from St. Louis, who brought her daughter in to dance with her? Or someone else entirely?"

Oh, well, never mind, she just got eliminated.

Based on the editing at least, that approach works. If you’re someone looking to try out next year, forget about the voice lessons. Create yourself a backstory that gets J.Lo to tear up, and you can move right ahead to planning that trip to the next round. But as for the viewers, it just makes for incentive to DVR and fast-forward the episodes until we finally get some drama in Hollywood.

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