American Idol 2010: Top Twelve… Eleven… Ten… whatever.

My last few posts have been way too serious. Time for some candy-flavored pop culture treacle!

At its best, American Idol is the pinnacle of that classic American standby, the talent show. Most of us have seen talent shows in some form or another since our first days in school. Remember? Little Cindy and her friends from ballet class, Mitchell with his martial arts, that smelly kid who does the yodeling… Later in high school, we got to see various types of singing divas, the stoners who had their own garage band, and the speech team doing various interpretations of poetry (guilty!).

Those of us whose first televisions were of the black-and-white variety also learned about the quintessential talent show from episodes of I Love Lucy, the Little Rascals shorts, and from the endless times that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland exclaimed “Let’s put on a show!”. Later, there were various sort-of talent shows, like The Gong Show and Star Search. But those didn’t quite hit the mark… they were too much of a gimmick, and they aired too often.

Then we got American Idol. It’s American! It’s bigger and brasher and louder and far more ostentatious than its British cousin! It’s a talent show for the entire frickin’ country, from ages 16 to 29, whoever can sing the best and win the hearts (and votes) of that fickle bitch, the American Public.

During the first few seasons – despite its high ratings – American Idol was still kind of a low-fi affair. The stage was small, the songs were not exactly the best of the record label’s catalog, and so on. But it was fun and sassy and made your root for your favorites and boo for the ones you wanted to go home.

But then, AmIdol went to HD, the computer graphics got flashier, the stage expanded. The judges (and Fox, the network that airs American Idol) started to think they were the ones we were all tuning in to watch. That got so bad that last season, one of the best contestants in years (Adam Lambert!) had his final number shoved into overtime because the judges just couldn’t stop talking to each other about whatever inane topic they were stuck on that had nothing to do with the show.

The press thus made a Big Deal out of the fact that this year, for its ninth season, one of the original judges was leaving for the first time. Paula won’t be there anymore! I could not have cared less. Yes, I enjoy Simon’s snark as much as the next person, but the other two or three judges could rotate every week for the input they bring. They make no difference at all.

Ellen DeGeneres? Fine, whatever. She’s funny. I like her. However, if I really want to see her, I can catch her on TV five times a week. I don’t watch AmIdol for the judges. Not even Simon, entertaining as he can be. No, I watch it for the contestants. I want to see who’s a surprisingly good singer, and who’s not. Who are the producers pimping this year? Who is the underdog that wows us all and makes it right to the finale?

That’s why I watch the show. Last year, with Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, and Allison Iraheta, we had some of the best contestants in years. For most of last season, I wish the judges had been limited to 90 seconds total, and just let the contestants perform for the entire rest of the show.

But this season… Oh. My. God. Oh, it is so sad.

It’s March, which means it’s time for another “Top Twelve” (well, Top Ten as I finally finish up this post). This, to me, is when the show gets actually interesting. From now until the season ends in May, we get to see one person a week get sent home by lack of votes. We get to watch various celebrity mentors coach these wannabe stars. We get to watch in shock and awe as the various “theme weeks” attempt to challenge the vocal prowess of these future pop radio champions. And, when we get to the final three weeks, we’ll get to see someone who absolutely deserves to win get voted off in fourth or fifth place instead (Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Allison Iraheta…)

As I’ve said before, I cannot stand – and I no longer watch – the audition episodes of Idol. It was funny on the very first season, way back in 2001. It was still a bit funny in the second season, when we had William Hung become a surprise awful star. By Season 3 the joke had worn itself out, and now, in American Idol’s ninth year on the air, it has become tiresome and boring. I no longer watch the show until it gets to Hollywood Week, about the fourth week in. I just cannot stomach watching the parade of awful contestants, with maybe one or two good singers thrown in every hour. And those dreadful behind the scenes “packages” designed to arose either pity or disdain before we’ve even heard a single note.

It’s not just that I don’t care, it’s that I actively despise the whole phony audition shows in their entirety. I mean… why in the world would I watch a talent show to see people who aren’t good enough to make the cut? It is completely pointless. Just show me the ones who are good enough to get on! Contrast this to the far superior summer show So You Think You Can Dance, where the formula is reversed: We see one or two token bad performances, but all the rest are good auditions for people who will actually at least get the judge’s nod for going to the next level. None of that on AmIdol! Instead they waste 15 minutes of our lives on some pathetic sad sack with delusions of grandeur who can’t even sing as well as I can (and believe me, I can’t sing).

But back to now. In the last of the semi-final episodes. American Idol cut its remaining 16 contestants down to 12. And these twelve – six boys, six girls (we can’t say “men and women” considering the ages of some of these kids) – moved on to the Big Stage. Getting into the 12 is a big deal, and it’s only a two contestants away from the Top Ten, who get paid to go on tour during the coming summer.

I had a few favorites. Note I said “had”. So you already know what I think about this year’s top 12. There were three contestants that I thought were entertaining, talented, and worthy of the Idol crown. And two of them – Alex Lambert (no relation to Adam from last season) and Lilly Scott – got the ax. That leaves only Crystal Bowersox as the sole contestants, out of twelve, who are at all interesting.

(By the way, I encourage all of you to go purchase the Alex Lambert version of “Trouble” from the iTunes store, before they inevitably pull it from distribution. It’s an excellent, excellent track, one that highlights why I enjoyed his singing so much – and why I fully expected him to make it to at least the Top Five. Also check out Lilly Scott’s “I Fall to Pieces”, a fun and snappy rendition of the Patsy Cline classic.)

In the two weeks since then, the show has just gotten worse and worse. Yes, Aaron Kelly can carry a tune, and it’s kind of fun seeing that tiny sixteen-year-old kid stand next to the giant football player dude. Then there are bunch of interchangeable female singers whose names and faces I can’t keep straight. They all sound alike, and they all bore me to tears.

I don’t care who wins. I’m not really even watching the show anymore. And that is the first time I’ve ever felt that way, since the show first went on the air in 2001. We’re weeks and weeks away from the end, and the show is about as exciting as watching golf without Tiger Woods. There is not even a fun Bad Contestant, like Sanjaya or Scott Savol. Just a series of cardboard cutouts from Central Casting who can carry a basic tune in a nice, High School Musical / Glee kind of way.

Yes, Crystal is still there, but I don’t hold any hope of her actually winning. Even if she does, watching a two-hour show just to get to hear her sing for 90 seconds is not worth it.

I don’t know what happened to American Idol. Did they get so caught up in the gimmicky parts of the show that they forgot to pick really good singers? Why did they get rid of the Wild Cards (bringing back good contestants who got voted off too early)?

No one is asking my opinion, and no one is going to take it… but American Idol needs a refresh. Badly. We need American Idol: The Next Generation.

The show needs an entirely new panel of judges. Maybe entirely new producers. Keep Ryan Seacrest for continuity, he’s this century’s Dick Clark. Change the way the voting works, so silly tween girls can’t text thousands of times for the guy with the blue eyes and bulging chest muscles who can barely sing. How about one vote per phone number, for example? Or one vote for a contestant, and another against – negative voting. Ditch the massive, tens of thousands of people phony “auditions” and just show the real couple hundred who make it to the judges. How about a rotating panel of judges, like the way So You Think You Can Dance or Top Chef work?

It needs something. It’s sad when a show that can basically run forever – it’s a talent show, for crying out loud! – seems to have run out of steam and become too boring to watch in just nine seasons.

I want to watch American Idol. I love American Idol. But this thing that’s currently on the air that’s calling itself American Idol, Season Nine?

Not so much.

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