The third season of “American Idol” kicks off Monday on FOX – and, for some of its viewers, ends two days later.
The successor to Ruben Studdard’s throne won’t be crowned until May, but what’s the point of watching once the auditions are over? The process of the show ensures that the finalists are all “good” singers in exactly the same homogenized ways, whereas the bad singers are each uniquely bad. Therefore, the only really compelling part of “American Idol” is the few episodes at the top of the season when the judges are auditioning terrible, hopeless wannabes who have no shot at a recording career ever.
Though “Idol” is considered part of the reality-TV genre, it has several inherent deficiencies when regarded by the serious TV junkie. The greatest appeal of nearly every other reality show is that it features real people doing humiliating things, or doing challenging things badly, so that we at home might feel superior to them.
When we watch toothsome twentysomethings choking down reindeer testicles on “Fear Factor," it’s not to admire their skill in conquering the task; it’s to see if they’re going to throw up and get booted out of the game. And the only time we ever remember any of the physical challenges on “Survivor” is when someone really biffs – remember when Sandra had to jump onto that platform in the water and landed on her jaw? Awesome.
When it comes to reality TV, it is more fun to watch someone doing something badly than it is to watch him do something well.
This fact runs counter to the stated mission of “American Idol,” which is ostensibly to ferret out the nation’s undiscovered talents and give one of them the recording contract we’re supposed to think they deserve – that, and to give Americans a chance to determine which wannabe is most worthy of the honor.
However, if you’ve seen any of the promos Fox has been running to tease the new season, it’ll be clear to you that someone at the network knows the most compelling reason we should tune in. The most memorable spots don’t showcase the best singers auditioning in front of Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson; rather, they feature the crappiest singers, cringe-inducingly belting their hearts out with misguided – and thus hilarious – confidence in their own talents.
Why shouldn’t we focus on the rotten singers, when the rest of the competition has become so irrelevant? Last season, it was as though each week brought with it another finalist’s hasty, ignominious exit, as TheSmokingGun.com brought their various past indiscretions to light, from assault charges to nudie photos.
Who cares who wins?
One could even argue that it barely matters who wins the contest. The first season winner (Kelly Clarkson) and second-place finisher (Justin Guarini) both released major-label début albums, both appeared in the same terrible movie (“From Justin To Kelly”), and both have pretty much departed from the pop-culture radar. The second-season finalists, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, have each had so much ink spilled about them that it’s easy to forget which one of them actually won. (Hint: Not the one who performed on MTV’s New Year’s Eve show, nor the first one to make it to the cover of “Rolling Stone.”)
To take the competition seriously means that, on some level, you think that whoever wins is going to end up a pop star – or, if you’re not prepared to suspend your disbelief that far, that you have at least formed an opinion as to which of the finalists most deserves to prevail over his or her rivals. But if you think that the judges’ selections are utterly predictable in their homogeneity, then there’s no reason to watch once the producers have finished airing footage of the crappy singers.
After all, we already have a Faith Hill (who may be one Faith Hill more than we need, anyway). What could compel a sensible person to subject herself to an array of wholesome blondes giving workmanlike renditions of every track in the Hill discography?
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Even if you’re tempted to tune in to critique the would-be Idols for yourself, the structure of the show will probably drive you away.
It’s inescapably true that reality shows are padded with pointless filler to insult the viewer’s intelligence and test his patience (as anyone who watched the final installment of “Trista & Ryan’s Wedding” could attest), but “American Idol” is particularly shameless in its low ratio of meaningful content per minute of programming.
The longer the season wears on, and the more contestants get eliminated, the more filler there has to be in each episode, culminating in the biggest travesty of all: a two-hour season finale to tell the nation the twelve seconds’ worth of information that Fox has suckered America into waiting four months to hear.
For all these reasons and more, I’m standing firm in my decision to watch only the “American Idol” auditions, and then move on with my life. If I ever have the burning desire to check in on the finalists’ standing . . . well, that’s what “Entertainment Weekly” is for.
By this time next year – when Fox is gearing up for “American Idol 4" – the “AI 3" winner will be on the way back toward the anonymity he or she is enjoying right now, so it’s just as well that I not start caring for that brief period of time in between.
The bad auditioners are never going to release ill-fated albums or show up on the cover of “People.” The least I can do to validate their sacrifice of dignity in the service of impossible dreams is to watch them slaughter “Do That To Me One More Time.”
And laugh. A lot.
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