(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won't be all that different. It's Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
We almost aren’t watching American Idol this year at my house. After many years of rabid fandom, we spent the last couple of seasons reluctantly joining the throngs following the nation’s most valuable franchise. The judges were insufferable, and a preponderance of the talent that was let through to the voting round laughable and frustrating. Not to mention the interminable freak show audition rounds. This was the year we were going to give it all up, justified in part by the new judges and the widespread suspicion that the show would lose any water-cooler relevance still clinging to its corpse when Simon Cowell, the judge everyone loves to boo, gave up his seat.
And to be honest, we haven’t been faithful viewers this year; we skipped those damnable auditions and went straight to Hollywood week, which still packs a wallop as a reality show pressure cooker. But there we also saw the cracks in the facade — the one-trick ponies who were bound to build a rabid, blinkered fandom despite their unsuitedness for the Idol model and survive deep into the elimination rounds, to our mounting disbelief.
Yet for all the flaws in the show’s increasingly creaky methodology — the no-talents with a quirk, the talents without personality, the void where some critique might be quite helpful and educational — it’s clear that this season Nigel Lythgoe has decided to do some things right. He’s made a bid for music industry credibility by getting highly successful, highly knowledgeable professionals to work with the contestants, letting them see that their self-expressive “I gotta be ME!” impulses aren’t always the best ideas. The same move is signalled by some of the legendary non-household names that have popped up in the band, the backup singers, and the audience, getting shout-outs and respect from the judges.
I appreciate that, even as I think the judging team too often fails to support that effort. I wish Steven Tyler hadn’t become the new Paula, with the bizarre and unfailingly positive locutions of looooove, because J-Lo is unsuited to be the voice of reason and dissent, leaving Randy (whose chops as a working professional are a little rustier than the new additions to the panel, and whose vocal tics have made him cartoonishly difficult to take seriously over the years) to fill that role. Worst of all, the absence of a definitive voice of judgement means that the voters have no guidance on who they’re supposed to support and shun, making for some utterly upside-down eliminations. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t love to see an American Idol taken further in this direction, with an emphasis on professionalism and performance rather than raw talent (“We know you’re great,” the judges so often say after a disappointing outing; isn’t the point of the show that they have to prove it week after week?).
So on the night of six, let’s see how the franchise is looking. In terms of the culling of talent, the show is clearly in trouble. We’ve got two non-starters in Scotty and Casey, comprising 20% of the remaining pool. But it’s a promising theme this week, one that’s a bit harder to finesse than the overly broad ranges of past installments — the songs of Carole King, which can range from soul to pop to singer-songwriter intimacy.
Jacob’s not-quite-drag act is one of the most problematic features of this season. He’s proven a couple of times that he can pull some real emotion and reality out of a song, but too often it’s like Antony and the Johnsons go burlesque. With “Oh No, Not My Baby,” he splits the difference — no reality there, but minimum weirdness. Because of the bouncy poppiness of the song, it’s not likely to be memorable; one wonders why he didn’t pick something that cuts a little closer to something raw.
On paper, Lauren seems like she’s built for this week. I’m not sure bringing Miley Cyrus out to tell her she’s pretty cool is the way to give her confidence, and the painted pillowcase she’s wearing is a mistake. But she quickly gained her footing after an awkward start and gave a really engaging performance, again of a song that isn’t full of expressive emotion. Even the little trick of pulling random schmoe (I hope he wasn’t completely random) up on stage to sing to worked for her — it was charming instead of gimmicky.
I’ve appreciated Scotty’s efforts to reinvent himself and sing out of his comfort zone, but he’s clearly the most limited of the group. It was a big disappointment to me when he made it out of the last round of eliminations to America’s vote, because I knew America would blindly send him right to the top as much because of his lack of range as any potential he might have. Tonight he interprets “You’ve Got A Friend” in a country ballad vein, and he’s doing his best to win me over — every time he goes to the top of his vocal register and lets the effort creep into his voice, I feel kindly towards him. This was really nicely done, and almost smirk-free.
James doing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is a wonderful surprise, because the problem with the rocker contestants is that they become vaudeville, stuck in their costumes. The question is always whether, without performance gimmicks, they can just let their talent and the merits of a song merge. I’m glad the audience appreciated what was so special about this moment — the confidence, the respect for the material, the vocals front and center. Reminds me of a great singer after hours doing music he loves and enjoying the company of the band, costumes and props left behind.
Casey is so much better when you close your eyes, isn’t he? That little round hobbit face distracts from his efforts to have blues and rock credibility. And tonight he just decided to provide a complete counterpoint to what James did — “strained” and “manic” were uttered in the easy chair next to mine. What’s always bothered me about the “show and revue” kinds of performances Idol sometimes busts out is that a performer has be earn that kind of thing; otherwise it’s just covering up for one’s inability to let go and give up control of the situation, engage in a real moment with an audience.
For Haley, I really want a Rickie Lee Jones week, don’t you? But I thought she would fit right in the pocket of these week, and although I’m not sure the sound issues were fixed when the song started, she attacked it with an energy that seems to flow straight out of her naturally — it’s not a put-on. For my Idol finale, I want Haley, Lauren, and James. The rest of ‘em can head off to the state fair circuit.
- While Haley and Casey’s rendition of “I Feel The Earth Move” was well choreographed and full of energy, I’m not sure I’m at all comfortable with the two of them yelling “I’ve got to have you, baby!” at each other.
- So we’re calling him Scotty the Body now? That makes me feel all icky inside.
- I am so distracted by Penny Marshall pulling faces right behind Randy.
- Oh lord, please don’t make Scotty sing harmony. All the goodwill built up from his performance has just gurgled down the drain.
- That white shirt/pants/shrunken tux jacket does horrible things for James’ pudge. While ironically, the coordinating outfit slims Jacob right down.
- The duets have no place in competition shows; it’s pure results-show futzing around. Only Haley and Casey’s looked like they’d even rehearsed it more than once. Messes with the purity of the “vote for what you saw on the screen” dynamic.
- Nice bit of editorializing by the end-of-the-show recap editors tonight, showing the most embarrassingly horrible bit of Casey’s voodoo act — “that muthaluvvin’ sky!”