As “American Idol” approaches its final weeks, this is the time to reflect upon why viewers will spend nearly two full days of our lives over a four-month period watching, as calls it, “this cheesy show.”
The answer is in the show’s human drama, which is what makes it reality television, not just a talent search competition. Without the craziness, “American Idol” would just be “Star Search,” and we’d all be asleep, drooling on our couches.
Ratings have been consistently down for this season of “American Idol” when compared to last year, but the sixth season has not been without its entertaining moments. Some of those moments, such as the ones named Sanjaya, lasted longer than anyone could ever have predicted.
The usual suspects have been quieter this year, however. Specifically, since the season began, the judges’ table’s middle seat has been occupied by an atypically sedate Paula Abdul. At least, she was sedate once the show began; beforehand, she was crazier than usual in a series of televised interviews. But she’s nothing like she was last season, when host Ryan Seacrest repeatedly inferred she was drunk.
The other judges, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, also haven't created a lot of drama. Ryan and Simon occasionally return to their tired shtick where they annoyingly try to make fun of one another, and Ryan has become a little more confrontational this year with Simon, often acting as the contestant’s representative. He’ll demand to know why Simon criticized the contestant, even when small children are crying in the background because their ears ache from the performance.
Still, the judges have not provided the headline-worthy entertainment this year. Instead, the contestants have filled that void this year.
Antonella, we hardly knew ye
The season opened with auditions that were . The camera lingered on sad faces, Ryan Seacrest stared at delusional people and let them verbally hang themselves, and dozens of rejected contestants stood at a locked door and tried to get out.
The season’s earliest controversy came when Simon Cowell made fun of two auditioners. One, media outlets reported later, was a Special Olympian who Simon indirectly said was fat, and the other had physical characteristics that prompted Simon to say, “you look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle with those massive eyes.” After the auditions, the show raced through the Hollywood round in a single evening.
Then came the top 24. The group of singers was, to say the least, unimpressive as a whole. The first night of semi-final performances left the judges disappointed that the contestants hadn’t performed as well as they had during the auditions. While there’s talent this year, there is not an overwhelming, awe-inspiring supply of it in these top 12 performers.
Luckily, we had Antonella Barba, one of the less-talented singers, to save us from the bad singing. She did so unintentionally, as someone distributed pictures of her in various states of undress, including an now-iconic photo of her sitting on the toilet with a wad of toilet paper in her hand. For some time, Antonella’s name was the most searched-for term on Yahoo, while searches for “Antonalle Barba” beat searches for “Britney Spears” on Yahoo. The nation was obsessed with her and those photos. Producers said she wouldn’t be eliminated from the competition because of them, but otherwise wouldn’t comment.
Despite her popularity, the pictures were never mentioned directly on the show. During one episode, Simon Cowell mentioned them by praising her response to their release, saying, “I feel for you, cause you’ve taken a lot of stick in the media. I think you’ve handled yourself well throughout, and I don’t think anyone should be put in that situation.” He went on to say that she didn’t sing well, and Antonella argued with him about that instead of thanking him for his support.
Antonella was far from the competition’s best singer, but she sailed through most of the semi-final rounds, defeating far better singers. Her notoriety undoubtedly helped her last longer because she was well-known.
But she was finally cut right at the end of the semi-finals, as the show found its top 12 singers.
When Antonella left, she passed the undeserving singer torch to Sanjaya Malakar, who is without question this season’s breakout star. Melinda Doolittle may be a former back-up singer with an incredible voice, but Sanjaya is a better performer, one who still commands the attention of the nation now, weeks after he was eliminated.
Sanjaya was not unknown going into the semi-finals; he auditioned with his sister, who was cut during the Hollywood round and left him in tears. His story was established early in the auditions when he was convinced that his sister was the better singer between them, but the judges told him that the opposite was true.
His initial humbleness, wide smile, and good-natured personality drew fans to his corner, but what really drew attention was his hair. In every episode, he debuted a new hairstyle, and those were often the subject of discussion. That was especially true after he seemed to mock the attention given to his hair by wearing a fauxhawk constructed out of ponytails.
Sanjaya lasted much longer than many thought he would, and in the finals, his fan base was finally given a face thanks to a 13-year-old girl in the audience who bawled her way through one of his performances. She went on to mini-stardom of her own and personified Sanjaya fever, which to this day many still don’t understand.
All good things must come to an end, though, and Sanjaya left the competition.
That left half of the finalists, all of whom earned a reprieve thanks to “American Idol”’s two-night charity telethon event.
Producers had been teasing the special episodes since December, and celebrity appearances were combined with appeals to help suffering people in the US and in Africa.
There was also a duet between the quite dead Elvis Presley and very much alive Celine Dion, thanks to special effects. But compared to the entertainment provided by Sanjaya’s time on the show, not even a dead idol brought back to life could compete.
is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.