There’s a seismic, if subtle, shift underway in the “American Idol” universe. It’s something that's visible in every episode, and no matter how hopelessly uncool or potentially provocative it is, it still needs to be recognized: Ryan Seacrest, going into his sixth season of the show, has become a pretty good host.
Nobody is ever going to confuse Seacrest with the Jon Stewarts, Charlie Roses or Johnny Carsons of the world. He’s a little too smug and, perma-stubble notwithstanding, a little too smooth. But in the ocean of cheese that is “Idol,” he has capitalized on those qualities to become an effective captain, steering the performers and the audience capably around potential jarlsbergs that could sink the entire thing.
He used to be terrible, of course, but during the first season he had the great fortune of sharing his hosting duties with Brian Dunkleman, who was to humor what an anchor is to an Alaskan cruise. Dunkleman was brought in as the ostensible comedian, whereas Seacrest, whose background lay in radio, was a pure broadcaster through and through.
The pairing was an uneasy balance of Seacrest’s over-the-top giddiness and Dunkleman’s acerbic boredom. The two were a trainwreck together, but even so, Dunkleman came off far worse, delivering interviews directly into female contestants’ breasts and consistently failing to stick the landing on jokes that were no good to begin with. His boredom with the show was so palpable that he was a black hole of mirth.
By contrast, Seacrest was manic and gleeful, capering around the stage like a puppy in a shelter, exuberantly overwhelmed by each new potential owner who happens to walk by. While Dunkleman played it low-key, Seacrest did everything in his power to artificially amp up the excitement that the show clearly wasn’t yet sure it could generate on its own. It was exhausting and embarrassing.
But at least it was enthusiasm. Dunkleman could never muster any himself, and by the start of season two, he was gone. Seacrest cruised along on his lonesome as a sort of object lesson in the endurance of Hollywood sub-mediocrity. By the fourth season of “Idol,” he was fumbling along just fine, failing to recognize the finality of his own inane “Seacrest out” catchphrase by occasionally following it up with “See ya!” and showing a shocking lack of knowledge of music for someone who also hosts “American Top 40.” On one occasion, he turned into Ron Burgundy by being struck dumb by a failing teleprompter while giving a contestant’s voting numbers, something he has done approximately 1,000 times.
Growing into the roleSo what changed? It’s not clear if there was even one single turning point, though it’s worth mentioning that Seacrest flubbed the coin toss during the fourth season’s finale so spectacularly that it fell down a grate, requiring stagehands to dismantle part of the stage. Perhaps when you’re not competent to flip a coin, it’s time to ask some important questions of yourself.
Whatever it was, ever since the fifth season, Seacrest has been a different host. For one thing, he became empathetic and fiercely protective of the contestants. Where he had previously attempted some degree of neutrality — asking them how they responded to harsh comments, requesting little more than clarification from the judges — he began sticking up for the singers and demanding that Simon add more “constructive” to his criticism. And from the way he quietly seethed as he went through his voting spiel, there were times when he seemed genuinely pissed at Simon.
But perhaps more important for the host of what is essentially a live television program, Seacrest has also become far more spontaneous, showing a quicker wit than four seasons of his jumpy nonsense suggested. It’s as though he has finally harnessed his core playfulness for good, rather than evil. He’s not Groucho by a long shot, certainly. But when he stumbles upon a bit that works (like the recent audition where he continually addressed obnoxiously untalented Isadora Furman as “Julie,” her hated given name), he shows that gentle nudging can pay bigger dividends than forceful pounding.
The same change may also be responsible for his improved interview skills. The old Seacrest typically stuck to the “How does that make you feel?” school of pointlessly broad questioning, and he occasionally answered his own questions on the contestants’ behalf. But being more at ease with both unscripted situations and the singers themselves has made him a more relaxed and inquisitive interviewer. His pre-elimination Q&A with the top 12 women of season 5 was a prime example, as his softballs were designed to engage the singers, rather than simply serve as filler. (Though they did that, too.) And by finishing with a joke made earlier by soon-to-be-booted contestant Brenna Gethers, he got a big, genuine laugh by showing that he was actually listening.
There is still plenty of work left to be done. Seacrest still has trouble pacing the show properly, and the forced and stilted transitions in the audition episodes — “Has Birmingham hit a winning streak? Well, don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched,” he recently offered by way of introduction of yellow-feather-clad nightmare Margaret Fowler — prove that he still struggles with a script. (Both problems could be the fault of the directors and producers, though.) It remains to be seen whether he’s truly retired “Seacrest out!” And the cheese is baked so completely into his being that the show should be sponsored by Combos.
But gone are the days in which the only way you could say that Seacrest did his job well was if you considered having teenagers find him cute in a sexually nonthreatening way his job. (It kind of was, though.) He is now a perfectly fine host for “Idol,” maybe better than the show deserves. Is it silly to commend Seacrest for finally learning how to do his job after five years? Probably. But learned it he has.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.