Regardless of who wins the Crystal Bowersox-Lee Dewyze showdown on “American Idol” this week, season nine will still go down as the most frustrating season in the show’s history.
Despite some of the heat-of-the-moment criticism, this isn't the worst year ever. Season six was probably the low point where it seemed like there might not be enough talent out there to sustain the franchise, while season three looks a lot better now that Jennifer Hudson has made it in Hollywood. I'd take this group over either of those two classes.
However, this was the first year where it seemed like “Idol” was flailing. There's no more aura of invincibility that kept rival networks from challenging it with programming they had any hopes for. And with Simon Cowell set to depart following Wednesday's finale, this is a scary new road for "Idol" to travel.
What makes it even more frightening for "Idol" fans is how close things were to being even worse.
Bowersox’s diabetes rendered her unable to compete on one of the Tuesday semifinal performance nights. If “Idol” had eliminated her rather than switching the date of competition to Wednesday so she could perform, May would have been a very uninspiring final month of the season, and maybe those vote totals would continue to decline. It's something to wonder about as we look at some of the factors that led "Idol" to reveal cracks in its facade this season.
Problems on the panel
The biggest change was the chemistry among the judges, and between the judges and Ryan Seacrest. Or, rather, the lack thereof.
With Paula Abdul gone and Simon a lame duck before the season even began, it was a different dynamic on the judges' podium that nobody seemed able to navigate. Simon wasn’t the alpha dog he had been. He’s now light on the snark and heavy on the wink despite a group of finalists that could have used some more withering takedowns. That left a vacuum that could not be filled by the current crew.
Ryan tried, but it just doesn't work to have the host be the edgiest member of the crew. He’s supposed to be the friendly ally of the contestants and the audience, so the biting “comedy” bits with Simon were uncomfortable to watch.
Kara DioGuardi looked like she wanted to take the reins, but with Simon getting the last word after every performance, it was hard for her to put her stamp on things. Randy Jackson is Randy Jackson: He’s always the same. It was always “just all right for me” unless the singer was “in it to win it.”
That left Ellen DeGeneres, who took the uncomfortable role of replacing Paula. She said early on that she didn’t know a ton about music in particular, but she did know about being an entertainer and performing live, and could contribute that knowledge as well as the perspective of the fan.
I wish she had done that and had been the professional equivalent of the wickedly funny people who flood my Twitter feed after every song. Instead, she had an up-and-down year filled with what seemed to be scripted one-liners, random praise and reluctant criticisms.
I’ll be very curious to hear what she says in the next few weeks about whether this season met her expectations and whether it seems like something she wants to keep doing. DeGeneres is a hilarious comedian and the best talk-show host this side of Oprah, but she also seems very nice. She doesn’t seem to be a mean-spirited person, and she did not ever look comfortable when a contestant struggled. Booing herself for offering criticism got old, and if she never uses the word "pitchy" again, that will be too soon.
‘Bandstand’ or ‘Idol’?
This was also the year where the results shows were more "American Bandstand" than "American Idol." Traditionally, the Wednesday shows have centered around the contestants, that week’s guest mentor and whichever former “American Idol” participant had an album or concert tour to pitch. That changed a little last year when Lady GaGa, Flo Rida and Katy Perry were among the performers, but this season became much more of an “American Top 40” vibe.
In the past month alone, we’ve seen Rascal Flatts, Shakira, Lady Antebellum, Sons of Sylvia, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Travis Garland and Justin Bieber taking the “Idol” stage (some live, some on tape). Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather watch any of them than another “Idol” group sing, but it just seemed off. Did we really needed to see Sons of Sylvia and Bieber perform on tape? Isn't that what the MTV and VH1 families are theoretically for?
There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to some of the selections. Garland got a prime spot because he was discovered by Perez Hilton, or so Ryan seemed to indicate. That just felt weird, since it isn’t like Hilton has an obvious connection to the show. Jason Derulo, DioGuardi’s discovery, also got a prime slot, though at least his song was getting radio airplay.
Finally, it has to be said that this group of finalists was unusually indistinguishable. Nobody was terrible — it will be a solid final 10 for the "Idol" tour — but everyone was just about the same each week. Aside from Dewyze, nobody stepped up their level of performance as the season went on, and since nobody was truly awful either, the show was boring. How many times can we really hear four judges say things that boil down to “that was just all right for me” every week?
Enjoy the Bowersox-Dewyze finale — it should be great. The folks at Fox and 19 Entertainment hope it will make you forget the rocky road the show took to get here.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.