When comedian and actor Chris Wylde auditioned in front of the judges, "American Idol 4" officially became the joke it has been striving to become over the last three weeks.
Identified by his birth name, Christopher Noll, Wylde auditioned as contestant number 91235. His black-rimmed glasses and bright orange- and green-striped rugby shirt didn't hide his identity from those who've seen him redecorating rooms on "Trading Spaces," playing roles in "Space Cowboys" and "Evolution," or cracking jokes on his self-titled, super-short-lived Comedy Central series. He overacted his way through his audition, rapping unfunny lyrics about the judges and dabbing melodramatically at his allegedly sweaty forehead while the judges rendered their verdicts. After they turned him down, he let out a string of bleep-inducing words.
Why did a recognizable actor and comedian, even in disguise, end up on a talent competition reality TV show? Did the show's producers know who he was and advance him anyway, thinking he might be funny? Or were they completely hosed, victims of yet another audition prank, like the radio station interns and others who have turned in awful performances in exchange for a few seconds of screen time.
Either way, producers advanced a singer who should have had no chance of facing the judges. But for some reason, this isn't unusual: An overwhelming number of people we saw audition in front of the judges over the past three weeks were similarly terrible.
A pretty lie
With a concept that's a televised version of the American dream, the People's Choice award-winning "American Idol" is heralded as quality, positive, uplifting television.
But that's a lie. As these three weeks of auditions have shown us, "American Idol" is no better than most of FOX's other reality offerings. Shows like "The Littlest Groom," "Joe Millionaire" and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" create situations where people are humiliated just to amuse the audience — and to amass ratings that routinely destroy the competition. Three years ago, in their infancy, the "Idol" auditions were amusing. Now they've become an exercise in crassness and excessive, unabashed meanness, perfect for a FOX reality show but unbefitting a show that has the reputation as best of its class.
In San Francisco, after watching 23-year-old Victor Mercado slaughter "Build Me Up Buttercup," Simon said, "Victor, you are a terrible singer, you are a terrible dancer, you have no charisma." Simon was so confident that Victor "can't sing" that he bet Victor $50,000 that he couldn't get a number-one record within the next six months. Randy added, "Your voice is terrible." So why did Victor make it to the final days of auditions? If "American Idol" was truly about showcasing talent, why not actually focus on those who have a chance?
Those auditions — the ones featuring performers who are on the borderline between good and great — are the ones the series should be showcasing. When the judges genuinely disagree, the process works, and it's entertaining. There's no reason to stack the deck with twits. But just watching a few minutes of the auditions makes it clear that the judges are often annoyed that they don't get to make real decisions. Instead, they have to hear idiot after delusional idiot.
Choreographed to showcase the freaks
Simon, Paula, and Randy don't show up until the end of the audition process, after producers have carefully vetted the thousands that show up in each city. Those with average talents are sent home, and only the best — and, absurdly, the most horrible and freakish — advance to the next stage. And often, they do so at the whims of the producers.
Twins JP and Rich Molfetta, for example, were forced to audition together during their first appearance in New Orleans. That made for allegedly good television but not for a strong audition.
After being rejected by the judges, they openly complained in the confessional about being paired up. Incredibly, when he showed up alone at the Las Vegas audition, Rich managed to advance to Hollywood. (His brother JP attended the San Francisco auditions, but he was not successful.) For the sake of attempting to create an interesting segment, a producer nearly sacrificed Rich's chance at realizing his dreams.
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And that's what "American Idol" is about, right? Dreams? Or is it actually about product placement and ratings? Considering that the editors select footage that mostly focuses on the dreadful, and with audiences flocking in huge numbers to watch, ratings seem to rule. Of the singers who received a few minutes' screen time in San Francisco, more than half were appalling. And then there were brief interludes showing at least 10 horrifyingly awful performers who easily make small children cry with their alleged "singing."
For a show that pretends to be a singing contest, it's ironic and pathetic that only a few minutes were dedicated to showcasing those who are truly talented. Despite watching hours of auditions, it's unlikely that we've seen even just a few of the finalists who will eventually become household names.
There's no excuse for this distorted focus, nor for the series' mean streak. Last week's New Orleans audition featured a montage of performers with accents, all of whom were members of ethnic groups. Their words were subtitled and written in cartoonish, offensive shorthand. This is what the most-watched television show in the country has to offer? And this is what viewers salivate over?
Can the show recover?
We're about to enter the part of the competition where the good will be eliminated in favor of the great. But if the previous three seasons are any indication, we can expect this focus on the irrelevant to continue. The sycophantic audience will boo every piece of constructive criticism that comes from Simon Cowell, just because it comes with some blunt, acerbic commentary. Time will be consumed by musical commercials featuring the finalists being forced to enjoy a sponsor's product. Metrosexual icon Ryan Seacrest will fling homophobic comments at Simon Cowell, who will fling them right back, for no discernible reason. And Paula Abdul will give the most absurdly backhanded compliments, all in the name of trying not to offend those who might actually need to hear the truth. Along the way, a talented singer will, almost by accident, become the next American idol.
At its best, "American Idol" has given us incredible performances and moments full of emotional intensity. But these three weeks, the series has been at its worst. A mime was actually permitted to advance far enough to audition in front of the judges. That doesn't even make sense for a quasi-serious, entertainment-based competition. The same holds true for contestant 91656, who showed up in San Francisco dressed like a cow, grabbing her udders as she sang "just hold on to my love."
"Not right for this competition," Paula said.
"So what are you looking for, then?" the cow-woman asked.
His head on the desk, Simon asked Paula, "Which competition would it be right for?"
"Best in show," Randy said, causing the cow-girl to walk out.
But the udder-fondler had a legitimate question: What exactly is "American Idol" looking for if it even lets someone like her through the door? The answer was given by Randy's response: an opportunity for humiliation via a cheap one-liner, for an extra ratings point.
"The number one show in America" should be better than this, aspiring to be more than an attractive package wallowing in FOX's reality gutter. The series should actually be about talent, not about giving a prime-time showcase to costumed teenagers and D-list actor/comedians for us to gawk at.
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