"American Idol" might as well change its name to "America's Guilty Pleasure."
Though the reality show genre is filled with programs that get great ratings despite having little redeeming value, "Idol" gives viewers a massive number of superficial but compelling reasons to watch. Love it or hate it, there's no turning away.
The miserable auditions
Whether it's the schadenfreude of watching egotistical posers getting their deserved smackdowns from the judges or the cringe-worthy performances of those who believe in their impending stardom, there's nothing like the audition shows.
'Idol" has been on for six years now. It's almost impossible to own a television set without having ever seen the program. One would think that viewers would realize that if they try out, they risk severe ridicule and embarrassment on national television. But every year, there's no shortage of brutal clips for the producers to choose from.
And thank heavens for that. Watching sincere hopes turn to massive disappointment is painful to watch, but it also makes for compelling viewing.
It's mean to crush other people's dreams. Social niceties dictate that it's improper to discourage people from following their heart, even if it's obvious that continuing to follow the Yellow Brick Road to stardom will only lead to ridicule and heartbreak. But even as the viewers slam Simon Cowell and the judges for being so mean, we can't turn away.
Part tacky, part trainwreck and part truth-teller, the trio of "Idol" judges always give the viewers something to talk about, be it their outfits, their feelings about their contestants or their banter with each other and with host Ryan Seacrest.
In the entire reality TV industry, is there more of a guilty pleasure-inducing spectacle than Paula Abdul on any given "Idol" night? What other TV personality could break her nose tripping over her Chihuahua? Or find herself in trouble for allegedly having an affair with a contestant? Or be able to excuse her sometimes bizarre activity on the show with reasons that sound just plausible enough to be acceptable (Reflex sympathetic dystrophy? Fatigue? Technical difficulties)? No wonder she also got a solo reality show of her own this summer.
Simon Cowell doesn't need anything like that; "Idol" is already the Simon Cowell show. He's a jerk and a bully, and his banter with Ryan skirts the fine line between uncomfortable humor and homophobia, but there is a reason why Simon's the most popular judge. When the contestants stink, he says so. When Paula says something dumb, he calls her on it. It doesn't exactly make a viewer feel like a model human being for agreeing with him, but it does feel right.
As for Randy Jackson, the man is responsible for bringing such words as "a'ight" and "dawg" into the popular lexicon. For that alone he deserves to go down in history.
The guest mentors
Bringing in a new washed-up or down-on-their-luck artist each week adds volume to the cringe factor, which ratchets up both guilt and pleasure.
'Peter Noone is still alive?" "Rod Stewart is singing what nowadays?" "Sanjaya's really going to have to sing a Gwen Stefani song?" Thoughts like that are evil and cruel ... and very much a part of the weekly "Idol" experience.
If the show's purpose was really to create a pop star, the producers would let the singers attack their favorite genre each week. Making Carrie Underwood sing a Broadway tune in the fourth season served no star-making purpose, other than to cause some viewers to remember fondly their own days starring in their high school musical. But forcing the singers to sing unfamiliar styles unsuited to their voices creates comical situations, and that's part of what keeps is watching.
Guilt-free Guilty Pleasure
However, the main reason that "Idol" is the ultimate guilty pleasure is because it is so popular that there is no shame involved.
"Idol" is the show that almost everybody watches. Every morning after the show airs, it's impossible to avoid hearing about what happened. Talk radio, mainstream media, or simply the lunch line, everyone is talking about "Idol."
With that kind of fan base, the show is the guilty pleasure that's OK to have. Like candy bars, McDonald's fries, or the excessive hitting of the snooze button in the morning, it's the acceptable vice of American television.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.