There are short segments in every competition episode of American Idol in which viewers get a glimpse into each contestant’s rehearsal process. That week’s mentor, along with affable slimeball Jimmy Iovine in recent seasons, espouses the greatness or, on a rare, delicious occasion, reinforces the mediocrity of the performer we are about to see. Perfectly-applied mascara runs down young, idealistic faces. Fears are voiced. Celebrities are fawned over. It’s a short buffer that forces the famous-mentor to put in the work for the product placement time they will receive during the telecast and allows for costume changes and set maneuvering during the commercial-heavy broadcast.
Think of Opening Act as an hour-long version of that rehearsal process, minus any of the stakes that American Idol is based on. If the potential Idol performance is a bust, America relishes the opportunity to stomp on a contestant's dreams. If the Act performance is terrible, we’ll probably never hear from that group again. But if it’s great, we’ll probably also never hear from them again.
That’s the inherent problem with Opening Act. We know who wins before the show even hits its first commercial break, and we don't get a say in it. Instead, American Idol/So You Think You Can Dance svengali Nigel Lythgoe relies on a panel made up of former Fall Out Boy member Pete Wentz, country star Martina McBride, R&B singer-songwriter Jason Derülo, and some other people who aren’t famous and are, therefore, not noteworthy (even though they end doing most of the coaching). They comb through YouTube videos in order to find the best fit for their pop star of the week.
But if we already know the ultimate victor, what are we sticking around for? To watch struggling musicians go through the natural competition show arc of freaking out, discussing their insecurities with relative strangers and talking about how lucky they are to get five minutes onstage in front of an audience who didn’t pay to see them? The show never overcomes this structural flaw.
For the first episode, Lythgoe and Co. choose Arielle O’Keefe, a sweet, sub-Ingrid Michaelson type from Allen, Texas, to open up for Rod Stewart at Caesars in Vegas. Stewart is an odd series opener to begin with, unless E! is banking on an onslaught of Great American Songbook fans, but he’s an even odder pairing with fresh-faced Arielle. And then Lythgoe makes it worse. As an introduction, Arielle performs an original—an angry piano ballad she calls “Monster” that Lythgoe tosses out in favor of a Selena Gomez throwaway. Arielle is given five days to learn and record the song for later sale on iTunes.
In between, Arielle speaks into a camera for a YouTube-style confessional that differs from her staged, intercut interviews. It’s a glimpse into this girl’s true insecurities, rather than the wounded character of the girl who was rejected in high school, making good on reality TV. “It’s gonna be okay, right?” Arielle asks the camera, her large expressive eyes widened. “It’s gotta be okay.”
But it’s not okay, because Arielle might know the lyrics to her song and she might have hit the note that worried her during rehearsal, but no one taught her how to actually perform it, especially because Caesars' stage differs greatly from the Potbelly's in the Dallas-Forth Worth area.
Instead, she’s stuffed into a ball gown and allowed to wander awkwardly around the stage, tunelessly yelling the song that strips away the smoky layers in her voice that made her YouTube audition stand out in the first place originally. The gap between standout performer and girl with an alright voice and a fast Internet connection is only widened when Stewart joins Arielle on stage so they can duet on “Have I Ever Told You.”
If Opening Act does anything, it makes the quick turnaround by each Idol contestant seem much more impressive, especially considering every contestant is charged with performing a new song weekly, live. It should also remind Lythgoe there’s a reason he and his producers keep those rehearsal bumpers short.