"American Idol" crowned Caleb Johnson the season 13 champion on Wednesday, and though the arena rocker is nothing but fun as a performer, he also doesn’t have a clear path to musical stardom. He was the best of a largely forgettable group, and that sums up “Idol” in a nutshell: performing well in a few areas but generally falling short of compelling television.
It looked for a time like “Idol” could really turn things around this year. Adding Harry Connick Jr. and his honest criticism, bringing back Jennifer Lopez and dumping all of the old judges except Keith Urban marked a huge increase in fun and a decrease in unnecessary drama.
And then somehow, it all went wrong.
After another season of lower ratings and diminished impact, we're at the point where Fox executives plan to reduce the show's hours for 2015, a once unthinkable act for the former ratings juggernaut. Here are some ways the show disappointed its fans in 2014.
Too much focus on the judges
The show's called "American Idol," not "Watch J.Lo Move to the Music." It's great to see that Urban clearly enjoys watching a performance, that J.Lo can barely stay in her chair and that Connick Jr. gazes on like a professor grading a musical final exam, but a very little of that goes a very long way.
It's tough for the viewers to grade the performances when the camera keeps cutting to the panel. Unless J.Lo's contract mandates that she be shown dancing for at least 10 minutes an episode, there was way too much emphasis on her. And did fans really need to see her perform twice in the finale?
Caleb is a lot of fun, the Taylor Hicks of this “Idol” generation. Jena Irene seems like an interesting personality, though it’s not easy to tell that from the show’s editing. The problem for “Idol” is that apart from the two finalists, the show didn’t pick compelling singers for people to vote for. If you could name all the finalists who appeared on stage, you’re in the rare minority.
“Idol” had contestants such as Alex Preston and Sam Woolf, both of whom have some vocal talent but seemed like the kind of guys who sit by themselves in the corner. It also had Malaya Watson, who was all personality but didn’t have vocal consistency. The host of Southern rockers were hard to tell apart, all small-town acts with stories that blended together. Was it Ben Briley who came in seventh place? No, it was Dexter Roberts. Wait, which was which again?
The twist that wasn’t
Some reality-show twists anger the contestants. Some anger the audience. Few have the ability to do both.
"Idol" managed that during the May 1 results show. With the top five on stage, host Ryan Seacrest announced that they had a choice: They could avoid hearing the results, bring everyone back and lose two singers the following week, or have him read the votes and potentially send someone home. The singers looked angry, the audience perplexed. And since two of them voted anonymously to not add the additional save, Sam went home.
But that elimination did save the show from a potential disastrous mistake. The judges had given Sam their save back in April, allowing him to stay alive despite being the low vote-getter. Imagine the conspiracy theories had the show contrived to save him twice.
The most damaging sign for "Idol" may have come earlier this month when Connick Jr. asked Caleb if he planned a career covering material or writing his own songs, and meant it as a sincere question and not a criticism. Imagine how pre-"X Factor" Simon Cowell would have handled that same situation, and you'll see why the post-show star power of "Idol's" acts has dropped since the caustic panelist left.
When the judges are thrilled with a singer who they aren't sure is suited for something beyond a cover band, that's a sign the talent level isn't where it needs to be to keep producing the stars the show needs.
Hopefully, there are more changes in store for season 14, particularly as far as picking the contestants and guiding their musical selection goes. If not, the hours might continue to drop in the years to come.