Considering its long-standing status as television's 900-pound gorilla, you'd think that "American Idol" would have no problems just sitting on its laurels and cursing the need to purchase yet another bill counter to handle all the money pouring in. Add a well-timed writers strike putting the kibosh on its scripted competition and it seems like the show would be content to simply do what it's always done just the way it's always done it.
But the current season features the most substantial restructuring since "Idol" began. Despite the show's longtime attitude of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it (and if it is broke, people will still watch, so don't fix it then, either)," there have been countless changes to both the presentation and the competition itself.
Sure, a few have either proven their worth or added a new dimension to a show that was threatening to grow stale. There have been fewer celebrity mentors this year, contestants are allowed to showcase themselves as complete performers by playing their own instruments, and Emmy-nominated but seemingly incompetent director Bruce Gowers has finally been replaced by someone called John Pritchett. (His new signature move of ending a song on a shot of a monitor of the performer before pulling back to see the entire stage doesn't bode well, however.)
But most of the "improvements" either haven't panned out or were problematic right from the start.
Hour-long results shows A lot of people considered the half-hour results shows of the past to be pointless, with only about three minutes of actual content filled out by little more than host Ryan Seacrest giving people stage directions while recapping the previous night's performances. The mystery is how it was decided that the best way to resolve this issue was to make the results show longer.
The amount of filler this year is off the charts, with even more blatant cross-promotion of Fox movies such as "Jumper" and "Horton Hears A Who," while the presentation of Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson's "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" video might be the first time that "Idol" has directly shilled for one of its stars' ancillary projects. Adding segments like those don't expand the show, they expand the commercials.
Then there's the biggest time-waster ...
The viewer call-in segment The idea, probably, was to make "Idol" interactive, giving it the cutting-edge, 21st-century excitement of talk radio. But the segment, taped before the actual live broadcast, has mostly just resulted in questions ranging from the uninspired ("What do you miss most about home, Syesha?") to the inane ("How can I make it through when I audition for the seventh time next summer?").
They're also handled in the stupidest possible manner, with the pre-screened questions displayed behind Seacrest before he selects one. By the time the caller starts to speak, everybody — Seacrest, the contestants, the judges and the studio and home audiences — already knows what the question is going to be. That makes the actual asking totally irrelevant beyond the callers hearing their own voices on television. Considering the purpose of the show (especially the auditions), that's probably reason enough for "Idol" to think it's genius.
The new set Much was made about how great the new set was going to be, and that made it pretty easy to predict that it would be trouble. "Idol" ran headlong in its usual direction of "bigger is better," bringing the singers into a cavernous space that practically swallows them whole.
Somewhere along the line, the stupid decision was also made to spread the "Idol" house band out across the many balconies above the stage. Considering that their tendency to overwhelm the singers has already earned them the nickname "Bandzilla," having the musicians abandon actual interplay and interact with one another by headphones isn't exactly progress. And the less said about the woefully misnamed "mosh pit" in front of the stage — which perhaps copies CBS' singing competition "Rock Star" — the better.
"Idol" was clearly jazzed at finally being able to have a Beatles night. The usual nonsense notwithstanding, it turned out pretty well, resulting in a handful of personal-best performances and generally preventing the contestants from falling on their faces unless they really, really worked hard at it. (Here's looking at you, Kristy Lee Cook and Davids Hernandez and Archuleta.)
Naturally, "Idol" rushed eagerly back to the well as soon as it got positive feedback and ruined it the very next week. Even Simon grew bored by the middle of the show. Way to kill the golden goose.
Themed semifinals Once upon a time, semifinalists performed for the judges in an empty studio with just a piano accompanying them, and only the top vote-getters moved on. Over the years, though, "Idol" has been slowly but surely making the semis indistinguishable from the later rounds, switching from a build-up to a tear-down system of creating the top 12, adding a band and an audience.
Nearly completing the transformation by adding specific themes (and a limited song list) was a mistake for a few reasons. It instantly put some contestants at a serious disadvantage. The free-for-all song selection of previous years allowed the singers to introduce themselves to the public however they wanted.
With themed semis, Elliott Yamin never sings "Moody's Mood For Love," Bo Bice never kills "Whipping Post" and Alaina Alexander never falls hilariously to pieces on a disastrously misguided "Not Ready to Make Nice." This year's previously invisible Colton Berry was voted off almost before his '60s night performance of "Suspicious Minds" even ended. What kind of singer does he want to be? Who knows?
Worse still, themed semifinals work to the active detriment of the show itself. The differences between the semis and the top 12 created distinct stages of the competition that are now almost nonexistent. That wrecks the pacing of the entire season, which is currently divided into only two parts: auditions that last too long and performances that last way, way too long. Changing themes and eliminated contestants notwithstanding, we're watching the exact same people jump through the exact same hoops for 14 weeks straight.
Wondering why "Idol" fatigue typically sets in around the top six? Try starting with that prolonged repetition.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.