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‘American Idol’ showing its age

There is a staleness settling over "American Idol." By Linda Holmes
/ Source: contributor

So the last blistered finger has dialed, and the last angry fan has text-messaged “OMG!” to her best friend when their shared favorite was sent home sniffling. The finale of “American Idol” has again come and gone, and Fantasia Barrino has walked off with the prize, probably the most powerfully talented contestant yet to do so.

There was crying, there was confetti, and there was the remarkable sight of Jennifer Love Hewitt interviewing people who are probably even a little more irrelevant at this point than she is. (One of whom was Jasmine Trias, and of all the distractions in the two-hour, horribly drawn-out finale, certainly her off-key, uninspired, utterly soulless rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” was one of the most unwelcome.)

Whatever you think of the ending, at the close of "Idol's" third season, it’s fair to ask where exactly this show stands. It has been a season marked by even more baffling results than usual, from the unexpected ouster of early favorite La Toya London to the eyebrow-raising staying power of one John Stevens, who proved that while the notion of an underage cocktail lounge singer may be charming, it is nonetheless laden with pitfalls. When the results have disappointed, theories from racism to producer interference have been floated, not only among “Idol’s” vociferous online following, but from such authorities on voting integrity as Elton John.

Ultimately, whether the season pleased you probably depends on what you want to get out of the show. If you like a good horse race with a worthy winner, you’re probably fine — Fantasia’s distinctive tone isn’t to everyone’s taste, but she earned the victory, particularly with a couple of roof-rattling performances in the final showdown. If you like a good story, you may like Fantasia’s over-the-top pluck, and who can’t love her adorable little kid? (Well, except for the scattered sniffing Puritans who would deny Fantasia a music career because she’s a young single mother.)

If you watch the show for good singing, however, the verdict is likely more mixed. Bad contestants lasted too long, and sometimes, it made for bad television. No one needed to see Trias take on disco night, nor Stevens Latin night, nor Jon Peter Lewis Motown night. They were bad, and that just isn’t that much fun.

Staleness settling over the showAnd if you watch "Idol" with nothing in particular in mind, looking for a fun bit of fluff, there is bad news as well. There is a staleness, in short, settling over the proceedings. Certainly, some of it goes right back to the vote. Whether you do or don’t believe that the results are fixed or flawed or riddled with bias, they’re certainly more dissonant then ever with the performances a lot of people feel like they saw. Apart from the sense of injustice that arises from specific results that don’t make sense, there is that gnawing sense that an ordinary viewer cannot expect to vote unless she is willing to call 30 or 40 times. The meager available phone lines are wholly overwhelmed by the power-dialing partisans who are constantly making “Mission: Impossible”-style plans to assault the system with a gaggle of votes. And that makes the process seem tired and mechanical, less a spontaneous fan reaction than an exercise in technology exploitation.

Unfortunately, the idea of the public actually being able to pick up the phone and vote after the show has become a quaint fiction; it just isn’t the case anymore. Maybe isn’t the solution, and maybe it’s not practical to go after the folks who are multi-voting from their Hello Kitty cell phones. Nevertheless, it's worth at least taking a look at the voting process to see if it can be freshened up a little and some of its immediacy restored.

It also may be time to look again at the judges. Yes, they are institutions. They also look bored.

Randy Jackson’s “It was just a'ight for me” responses are starting to provoke involuntary eyelid twitches from sheer repetition, and his position as the So-So Guy is now routine. On one side of him, of course, is Paula Abdul, congratulating and praising everyone who finishes a performance without falling off the stage. On the other is Simon Cowell, who scoffs at everyone except the requisite favorite whom he chooses to champion week after week (this season, it was Fantasia). This season, Simon also upped the frequency with which he either intoned some stunning superlative about how someone was the greatest thus-and-so ever to such-and-such, or made great drama out of announcing that he was taking back a previous insult. As much fun as Simon’s cutting tongue can be, it might be a good idea to get some different bodies in those chairs.

And then there are the theme nights. Big Band Night? All right. Motown Night? Well,  maybe. Barry Manilow Night? Okay, if it’s acceptable to appreciate it primarily as comedy. But a Latin Night that’s actually Gloria Estefan Night and thus involves such non-Latin non-classics as “Music of My Heart”? No. It would be better to surrender to a few more episodes with names like Please, Just See If You Can Stay In Tune Night than to continue stretching for available celebrities until we’re all gathering around the television for Animotion Night.

The show probably isn’t in any danger of losing steam any time soon. Fantasia won, and it wound up being an extremely satisfying final result. There was some drama, and surprising growth in the capabilities of some of the contestants. But the show has lost some part of its silly sparkle, and looks more and more like a tired retread. It’s time to look at the formula — the theme nights, the judges, the voting — and do a little fine-tuning.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.