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‘Idol’ returns as winter comfort viewing

Paula’s still random, Simon’s still snarky, fans will still tune in
/ Source: contributor

“American Idol” is the comfort food of reality television. While other shows have the backstabbing and the bombast, “Idol” has managed to take the old-fashioned concept of a talent show, combine it with karaoke night, add some sardonic commentary and the bright lights of television, and turn it into a massive, unbeatable hit.

“Idol” has thus far kept to the one-season-per calendar year approach, resisting the Trumpesque temptation to beat the brand name into the ground month after month.  The result is that every January, viewers feel as if they’re sitting down with old friends to catch up.

OK, so Paula Abdul’s a little bit on the crazy side, and prone to random outbursts at inopportune times, Randy Jackson speaks in a language that nobody except him understands, and Simon Cowell is Simon Cowell. Still, some viewers take comfort in the knowledge that they're up for five more months of bad karaoke, insults, snafus and sometimes even decent singing performances.

Fox promises some new twists and turns for 2006. This year supposedly features a ruder version of the last few seasons, with wholesomeness theoretically sacrificed for back-biting and drama. Singers quit onstage, auditioners insult other contestants … the promotional spots make the show sound like “Survivor,” only with better food and hot showers.

But don’t be too sure that’s not more hype than fact. "American Idol" isn’t one of those programs where betraying and backstabbing earns someone a million dollars. The audience votes to keep people in the competition, not eliminate the obnoxious, and generally the way to audience votes is through the heart, not through the back.

In fact, it’s safe to assume that a lot of what we’ve seen in past years will re-emerge this time around.

William Hung II, III, IV, V…
As anyone who's watched the show knows, who was so bad, yet so sincere, that he landed a record deal and appeared in a movie, something some of that season’s finalists are still seeking.

His success has seemingly inspired other awful singers to try their luck, but the more interesting contestants are those who don’t seem to realize how bad they are. Every few minutes of the auditions, viewers are treated to a well-meaning trainwreck, someone whose family and friends are apparently too kind to tell them they should forget about a singing career.

Thankfully, the judges don’t have that kindness problem.

‘You haven’t seen the last of me!’
It never fails. A singer will audition, fail to make it into the next stage of the competition, and rant about how the judges are making a huge mistake and rejecting the next Madonna, Springsteen, or Pray for the Soul of Betty.

It’s great to keep the dream alive, but let’s be honest … how many “Idol” also-rans have turned up again over the past four years? About as many as believe Justin Guarini was robbed in the Oscar voting for "From Justin to Kelly."

Sob stories straight from a Lifetime movie
The whole point of the auditions is to get the audience cheering for everyone. So for a few weeks, “American Idol” becomes like Lifetime TV movies — full of stories about hopefuls who have made it that far because of medical miracles, pawning their wedding rings, quitting their jobs, driving 17 hours in the snow uphill both ways, all to defy music-hating parents who said pop songs are instruments of the devil.

That just makes it all the sadder when most of them get kicked off the show after 30 seconds of airtime.

Good cop, bad cop and bad dawg
Despite the summertime rumors that producers were considering replacing Paula Abdul with the likes of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, the judging trio of Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson will return again this season.

That means that in most cases, Paula will love whoever is auditioning, Simon will hate them, and Randy will break the tie. Since the judging in this competition is subjective, contestants move forward or are kicked off solely based on what the three judges say.

That means that in some cities, marginal contestants are put through to the next stage because they amuse or entertain the troika. In others, perhaps those with inferior room service at the hotels, everyone shows up cranky and nobody moves on at all.

Teenagers who start strong and flame outAfter the debacle of , which saw talent execs petrified about who would be getting a record deal if Fantasia Barrino didn’t win, producers decided to raise the age limit to 28.  One side effect is that the teenagers look like, well, teenagers by comparison.

Most of the younger hopefuls were overwhelmed early last year, with only Mikalah Gordon, Jessica Sierra, and Anthony Fedorov making it into the final 12 and Gordon and Sierra getting the boot in the first three weeks. Singers with more experience in the music scene (think Constantine Maroulis and Bo Bice, each with years of band experience) have proven less likely to be rattled by the pressure of the national spotlight in the early weeks.

WWTJD?What would the judges do? That’s the big question performers have to answer every week. If they can’t guess what Simon, Paula and Randy are looking for, they’re apt to get the boot early. The problem is that the judges' criteria changes every week.

Last season, judges loved Nadia Turner's originality in the early days, then hated it when she continued singing obscure songs and dressing in her unconventional manner. She went out earlier than expected. Mikalah Gordon was praised for her voice, then criticized for not being goofy enough. She went early as well.

On the other hand, Anthony Fedorov was criticized by Simon every week, but kept on singing the same songs and came in fourth, showing that pleasing the viewers counts for more in the end than keeping Simon happy.

Secretive voting systemOf course, pleasing the audience is difficult when it's unclear who is the most successful at it.

"American Idol" reveals the bottom vote-getters every week, but not the full standings. While this may add to the drama, it also gives viewers a false sense of security — in the finals' early stages, nobody knows if their favorite came in first or ninth.

A more transparent voting system would help "American Idol" increase the number of viewers motivated to call in for their favorite. As it stands, there's only a sense of urgency for a couple of contestants per show — the two that finish next-to-last.

Ranking the contestants based on votes received would make the rise and fall of each participant clearer. That would ratchet up the pressure on the contestants as well as the callers, which would probably make the folks at Fox very happy. Imagine the stress on a teenager who not only has to deal with being ripped by Simon every week, but who also knows she's fallen from third to seventh in recent voting.

Rankings could be tracked like the Top 25 polls in college basketball, another TV event that winnows its contestants in the spring until only one remains. Message boards would obsess over their favorites, with detailed plans to get out the vote the following week.

But that probably won't happen anytime soon. All preseason talk of changes aside, "Idol" is likely to remain comfortably the same.

The judges will bicker and flirt, host Ryan Seacrest will make his usual array of dumb jokes, and by the end of May, someone else will be signing a million-dollar record deal with a ready-made group of dedicated fans lining up to buy the album. That's the precise mixture of talent show, product placement program, brand-name enhancement and marketing gimmick that's worked for four seasons so far.  That's the "American Idol" way.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.