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The downside of ‘Idol’ worship

America's beloved show is too bland to loathe

In his usual fashion, Ryan Seacrest was struggling to build enough tension to drag viewers through the half-hour of filler that constitutes a Wednesday-night “American Idol.”

“Can you handle the results?!?” he thundered.

Why yes, yes I can.  I could handle them even better without 25 minutes of small talk, commercial breaks, endless recaps and one of those infernal group singalongs. Better yet, I could have skipped them entirely and demanded TiVo serve me up something compelling and edifying. Like "Frontline." Or “The Starlet.”

Thing is, I’d truly love to hate “American Idol.”

But “Idol” is frankly so bland that loathing it isn't worth my energy.  If not for Simon’s brief moments of screen time and the whirlwind synth flourish of the show’s opening, I’d find more drama in a shoeshine.

At least a show like “America’s Next Top Model” rewards us with drama and tears when a hopeful is sent packing; “Apprentice” losers get their one final cab ride of regret.

“Idol,” though, is desperate to maintain its stage smile and jazz hands. It vainly sticks its chin up and never lets us see it sweat.

It is the culmination of decades of bland, cynical corporate entertainment costumed in pastel colors and grins.  It is the “Miss America” pageant without swimsuits. It is “Ice Capades” without the ice.  It is the bastard stepchild of “American Bandstand” and the Jerry Lewis telethon. It is the Wonder Bread of television.

Waiting ... waiting ...Perhaps, then, I should be giving “Idol” credit for trying so hard to be liked, like a new kid in second-period chemistry. Seacrest gets extra credit for shamelessly pandering to every last viewer, reminding us that if we don’t rush to our phones and vote, if we don't indulge in the buzz, we might betray our favorite hopeful and send them back to whatever sort of “Surreal Life” obscurity awaits “Idol” has-beens.

At its best, "Idol" channels bland top-40 radio — Seacrest should be familiar with that, of course — but its devotion to sheer time wastage makes Casey Kasem look like the very model of efficiency. (I spent about a third of my childhood eagerly waiting for ... Casey … to … announce … No. 1.)

Not even televised pro bowling can match the talent of "American Idol" in stretching a scant few slivers of drama into a full 90 minutes per week. Tuesday shows take a handful of performances of generally low-royalty songs and cover them in a rich coating of cameo celebrity appearances (Hi, Heather Locklear!  Hi, cast of “Stacked”!); shameless in-show promos (Coke may get a prize for the most graceless product placement in history); utterly canned bio clips and, of course, more commercial breaks than anyone should endure.

Results shows are even worse — perhaps three minutes of useful TV stretched like Silly Putty. By comparison, “Apprentice” and “Top Model,” even “Survivor,” are the very soul of brevity.

If “Idol” had an edge, it might better justify its endless reams of filler. But even its more lively moments are undermined by bad sports clichés and saccharine smiles. “I’m just really blessed to have gotten this far,” beamed Constantine Maroulis as he got the hook.  That sort of gracious loserdom might fly in Little League and pie-baking contests, but dude, this is the music industry. Check your humility and good will at the door.

Feel the painThis, ultimately, is what makes “Idol” so wrong.  It asks us to labor under the delusion that essentially decent people (not you, Corey Clark) can find a detour around the nasty, debasing climb to the top that has become standard practice for modern musicians.

But we love musicians because of their suffering (Johnny Cash, Dave Navarro) not in spite of it. No surprise that Bo Bice didn't face much backlash for his cocaine bust: It was a rare chance to see an “Idol” contestant act like … a rock star.

Simon Cowell is the only one who gives viewers even a hint of this less-happy reality, our only persistent hint as to just what heartless motives truly lie behind these bids for stardom. If not for him, the whole thing would melt into a big mess of cotton candy.

“Idol” is the very definition of family entertainment, a proven formula that celebrates everyday people and can’t possibly offend. That’s why I can’t stomach it.  The best TV is edgy and dangerous; it dredges up strong emotions. At the very least, TV should titillate.  Even “Fear Factor” clung to that time-tested reality show theme: “Better them than me.”

But “Idol” is so determined to remain mainstream — either because its producers know that’s the best way to maintain their grip on the Nielsens or because of Fox needs a moral counterpoint to “Family Guy” — that it ends up as televisual wallpaper, something to watch with half an eye as you eat dinner, IM your friends and chat on the phone.

Enduring fame?Ultimately, the proof of the show's worth will be the staying power of its winningest stars. There is a certain brilliance in its voting scheme — sort of a cultural crack cocaine that keeps you coming back for another hit. It guarantees a built-in fan base not only for the show but its winners' hastily produced first singles.

The long view seems less rosy. Will Ruben Studdard transform himself into another Luther Vandross?  Will fans shell out hard cash for a Kelly Clarkson album in 2014?

It’s certainly possible. Other TV talent hunts succeeded because they found performers who resonated in the marketplace; “Star Search” brought us Alanis Morrisette and LeAnn Rimes, who of course is now hosting her own Nashville-themed “Idol” knockoff.

But “Idol” puts its hopefuls’ careers at the mercy of snap judgments. The results are often directly at odds with judges who (save Paula) have made their careers out of picking talent.

That could mean Simon and Randy are dead wrong about what Americans really want to hear. Or it could mean that an “Idol” win guarantees a path to the record store bargain bin and a future full of gigs opening for John Waite at the local casino. lifestyle editor Jon Bonné once proudly owned Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl." Straight up.