Sunday, November 28, 2010

Idol Change Is Gonna Come (Like it or Not)

I wanted to wait until they were done making changes on the show before I wrote my thoughts on them. At this point, I'm not sure if they are done or not but with the show starting up again in about 50 days, I figured it was now or never. Plus, for reasons unknown I'm always more motivated to write at this time of year. I may miss some of the changes because I don't want this to be a six-hour project, but I'll try to hit all the biggies.

Nigel Lythgoe returns / Simon Cowell leaves. Obviously, much was made about Simon leaving the show. They even brought back a bitter Paula Abdul for the finale in May (maybe I'm wrong about the bitter part, but it seemed that way to me). Not as much has been made of Lythgoe's return and you may be wondering why I counted them as one change.

Here's why. Early on (the first two-three seasons), there was a lot of tension (so much so that it sometimes spilled into the live broadcasts in the form of Simon Cowell temper tantrums) about which of them was really in control of the show. When Lythgoe created -- with Simon Fuller -- So You Think You Can Dance in 2005, he quickly focused much more of his attention on that, leaving Cowell to have his way more and more. Eventually, Lythgoe gave up his title of Executive Producer of Idol in 2008 and was not involved at all in seasons 8 and 9. With Simon gone and no one else threatening his ego, Lythgoe is back to (in his mind) save Idol.

Simon leaving the show is the big killer. I know that Idol thinks it's bigger than any one person, but it is still the sum of its parts -- not all of which are interchangeable and / or replaceable. With Paula and Simon gone, at least half of the chemistry that made the show a success is gone. And probably more than half. Simon had a way of making his colleagues more likeable and sympathetic. He did it for Paula and for Ryan Seacrest. He might have been on his way to doing it for Kara DioGuardi if he (and she) had stayed.

Obviously the producers of the show have some idea of the void created by Simon's exit. They gave Seacrest $45 million to make sure they hung on to at least one lynch pin. In retrospect, they almost certainly knew that Simon was trying to bring X Factor to America. They had to decide how to proceed and they decided Ryan was a more valuable asset to the show than Paula. It was probably the right decision. Without Simon as her friend/foil, Paula loses some of her appeal. Meanwhile, Ryan not only has a radio show on which he promotes Idol at every opportunity, he spends the most time with the contestants and has pretty much taken on the responsibility of being their den mother. Still, what they're left with is Ryan and, ironically, the one original judge that they could have lost with hardly any ill effects.

So, while the return of Nigel is good, it's not nearly as good as the loss of Simon is bad.

Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres are gone. I'm going to deal with their departure together, but separate from the addition of the new judges because I think there are discrete effects from each of those changes.

Let's dispose of (pun sort of intended) Ellen first. Other than the initial media/fan buzz her addition caused, she made very little impact on the judging panel, the contestants or the show in general. Her tenure will be about as memorable as Shelly Hack's stint on Charlie's Angels.

DioGuardi is a different story. Anyone that keeps up on these Idol posts knows that to me, Kara is a four-letter word. (I have five words for you: I hated her.)

However, her improvement during her second season as compared to her first was exponential (maybe to the nth degree). Mostly, I'm sure, it was due to the Cowell effect I wrote about above. They moved her next to him and she instantly became more lucid. If you buy that the producers also believed my theory (realizing it independent of me obviously), it makes sense that they would get rid of her now that Simon is gone. Who would want to risk a return of "the package artist"?

As an aside, I just want to be fair to someone I almost constantly compared to Satan (in spite of my own moratorium on such analogies). If I had been writing this blog during seasons 2 and 3, you'd be able to go to the archives and remind me that I was calling for Paula's head on a weekly basis. It wasn't until about season 4 that her incoherence and disconnect from reality became more charming than annoying. So, who knows? Maybe Kara's out-of-left-field comments and her inability to count would have also grown on me over time. We'll never know now.

Like Ellen, she probably won't be missed much. Unlike Ellen, she will be remembered. For better or worse, she put her stamp on the show during her two years. I'm not sorry she's gone, but I think the producers owed her more than having her find out she was fired by seeing it on Entertainment Tonight.

Enter Steven Tyler and J-Lo. The choice of Steven Tyler caught me completely off guard. Obviously, by the time it was officially announced we'd been hearing about it for weeks; but I was certain that it must be a false rumor planted to keep the media interested. I'm not a big Def Leppard (or Judas Priest or Aerosmith, wherever he's from) fan, so I won't even pretend to know if he's got the goods to pull this gig off.

What I can say is that I don't really have a better choice to offer up as an alternative. Maybe Neil Patrick Harris, but he's on the verge of being more overexposed than Betty White (whom they may have also considered) so it's probably good they didn't go that way (I was going to say that he already has more jobs than a Jamaican woman, but I thought that might be offensive so I decided against it).

I'm just soooo glad it's not Quentin Tarantino. He fancies himself an expert at doling out Idol advice, so I was afraid that might happen. Since it didn't, I'm not going to complain much about this choice. Yet.

J-Lo, J-Lo, J-Lo. I'm a little bummed about this choice, but I'm not exactly sure why since she would have been on my short list to fill the chair. The others? Call me crazy, but right up until the end I was hoping and rooting for the return of Ms. Abdul. What can I say? I straight up love me some Paula. After that, I thought Olivia Newton-John would be a great choice. She's bright and funny and almost universally beloved. She would have been Paula 2.0.

I also considered (as if I actually had any say in the matter) a publicity stunt choice -- a past contestant from the show. There are actually a few to choose from depending on what you were looking for on the panel. For low-key and reserved, you could go with Melinda Doolittle from season 6. If you wanted someone thoughtful and musically gifted, I would have loved to be seeing Tamyra Gray every week. Finally, if you wanted sassy and smart-ass, there was Mikalah Gordon. Mostly, that was just a lark for me to daydream about, but honestly I think any one of them could have done a surprisingly good job.

Finally, there was the woman that stole my heart during the audition episodes -- Victoria Beckham. For the life of me, I can't figure out why she wasn't in the running (at least I never saw her name bandied about -- I love that expression). She did a fantastic job on the panel during the auditions and it's not like she's so busy recording records. I think this non-choice disappointed me most because it was the one I felt was the most realistic.

So we're left with Jennifer Lopez. Like I said, she was on my list. She's mentored on the show and done, in my opinion, a credible job. But that's about the extent of my passion for her. Maybe she's going to surprise me, but just because she wanted the job doesn't mean she's the right person for it (see: Ellen DeGeneres).

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday. I don't really see how this will affect the show at all. Personally it's a nightmare because I already have this Big Bang Theory, Bones, Community conflict on Thursdays. Idol just clogs up more Thursday television traffic for me. A quick search of the net explains a lot. Right now, BBT is kicking Bones's ass in the ratings at 8 pm. Fringe has dismal ratings at 9 pm. You move AI into the 8 pm slot, where it will almost certainly beat Big Bang (and maybe cause the cancellation of the under-rated Community -- damn you Idol) and move Bones to 9 pm, where white noise would probably get better ratings than Fringe.

So, it's most likely a win for Fox, but a non-issue for the rest of you (I shall remain bitter for now).

The longest hour of the week. Those 30-minute results shows were great while they lasted. They are back to a very bloated hour. This is just a case of knowing how to work the fast-forward button on your DVR remote. The only thing that would make it interesting is if they used part of the hour for a "where are they now" segment of past contestants. Well, it would make it more interesting for me.

From Hollywood Week directly to the Top 12. This is maybe the most controversial change of all. The small sampling of people I've talk to about it hate this idea. It takes away even more of the will of the viewer than the judges' save (which I wish they would eliminate). The whole point of the show all along has been that WE decide who wins. So, right off the bat it's not such a great decision.

Furthermore, I can think of at least five amazing semi-final performances right off the top of my head -- Clay Aiken's Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Latoya London's All by Myself, Bo Bice's Whipping Post, Jason Castro's Hallelujah, Allison Iraheta's Alone. There are more, but I said five so I'll stop at five.

Even more of a concern (to me at least) is what they are going to fill those three weeks with. If it means we get to see almost all of Hollywood Week, then they might win me over. Hollywood Week is like AI crack for me. But if it's more Audition episodes to endure, then count me out. I've already decided not to blog the audition shows this year because they wore me out before the season even started. If they add more of them, I might decide not to watch them either.

Finally, I think the reason they are doing this is because so many of their early favorites fall flat in the semi-finals. I'd almost understand their rationale if even one of those favorites transformed from semi-final Idol loser to multi-platinum recording artist, but I can't think of one contestant that didn't make it to the Top 12 that has had a successful career. I'd say our (the public) track record is just about impeccable.

This change is an abomination (and quite possibly the thing that finally causes the Idol machine to permanently malfunction).

Marketing 101. So now, in addition to dealing with the competition, the hectic schedule and performing live for 30 million people, they will need to make videos, learn to dance and promote themselves.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the contestants handle it all. And as Michael Slezak pointed out in his article on this topic, it will only help them when they have to compete in the real world.

The only criticism I have of this is that it seems ironic that they are going to make them prove they can do all this, but then whoever wins will be forced to do what he / she is told by the record label.

Oh, I guess that wasn't my only criticism. I didn't see "prove they can write a song" on that list. The one innovation the fans have been clamoring for the most is completely disregarded. Pshaw.

Who's that behind those Les Paul Guitars? Nigel Lythgoe is going to make sure the contestants stop "hiding behind" their guitars. What does that even mean? Are they banning instruments altogether? Just guitars? Do they have to stand in front of their guitars if they want to play them (that would certainly display uncommon talent)?

It's hard to really form an opinion about this change without knowing exactly what it means, but ignorance has never stopped me from judging anything before.

I was (and to a large extent still am) a big fan of the introduction of instruments three seasons ago. I'm not sure David Cook would have won if not for the combination of his stellar guitar playing, excellent arrangements and his very, very good voice. And David Cook was the kind of contestant I love to see win. The guy that just keeps getting better and growing every week.

When I first thought about this change, I felt like it would be good because some great singers have maybe been overlooked because they don't play instruments. But then I decided to think more about the facts and not just my perceptions.

While it's true that the last three winners have used their guitars to great effect, it isn't really true that it's handicapped others. The year David Cook one, the other two of the top three were Syesha Mercado -- who played no instrument that I can recall -- and David Archuleta -- who did play the piano (and maybe the guitar once) but certainly was more acclaimed for his voice than anything else.

The next year, same thing. Kris Allen won, but Allison Iraheta, Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert used a guitar maybe three times combined.

So last year is really the only year where the guitar took center stage (all of the top three leaned heavily on it all season). But I think that was mostly because there wasn't one incredible singer in the bunch. Give us some great singers to choose from and we'll probably choose them.

I guess the way I would like to see this play out is to allow contestants to continue to play instruments, but limit the number of times they can use a specific instrument. You've already played the guitar twice; if you want to play an instrument this week, choose something different. This way, we don't lose the opportunity for some amazing performances (Kris Allen's Heartless for one), but the contestants are forced to be more versatile and step out of their comfort zones.

In conclusion, my findings on this change are inconclusive.

What are your feeling about the coming season? Excitement? Apathy? Impending doom? Don't be shy. If you made it through more than 2,500 words on this subject, you surely have an opinion.

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