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Assessing American Idol

When it comes to America's favorite talent show, I could not be more cynical.

And not just because it has become the embodiment of all that's wrong with modern-day pop music -- from the flood of inexperienced, barely talented, visually striking young performers who seem born in front of a camera, to the parade of bland, unchallenging material they are forced to sing.

As America prepares tonight to choose between the new school Michael McDonald-isms of Taylor "Soul Patol" Hicks and the bland sex appeal of Katharine McPhee, I gotta admit, I never saw the success of this show coming (50-million votes a week!).

And as much as the show's producers and resident crank Simon Cowell like to pretend otherwise, I don't think they anticipated it, either. On magazine cover after cover, the pieces all seem to ask the same question: Why this show?

My friend Charlie McCollum, the TV critic for the San Jose Mercury News, suggests it is the show's interactive component -- that viewers have taken control of the show from producers by voting for who stays and who goes. And here's where my cynicism kicks in; because I'm not sure how much control the viewers really have.

How can anybody be sure? Fox doesn't reveal many details of the voting publicly. We are told overall vote totals, but given no information by region of the country or time zone. We don't know how well-publicized breakdowns in telephone connections might affect outcomes, or how much determined speed voters might sway the proceedings. And considering this is the most-watched show on television and the crown jewel of the Fox network's season, there's really no incentive to manipulate the results for maximum drama.

Critics have groused about the lack of talent among the contestants -- David Spade tore it a new one on the Showbiz Show last week -- but that's also a big part of the show's appeal. Star Search proved that watching almost-professional performers is so old school it's almost prehistoric; watching the kid who can barely hit the note make it happen or not -- now that's spellbinding.

Like any good melodrama, there's plenty of backstage intrigue as well. The continuing onscreen disintegration of Paula Abdul is a strange sort of Karmic comeuppance for those of us who were stuck sitting through her videos when she was an MTV mainstay (I've met her twice, and both times she seemed a bit, shall we say, altered). When will Randy Jackson figure out that his streetwise patios is just dated enough to make him sound like the old guy at the club women always avoid? And can you call somebody a judge when they can't vote on the results?

Through it all, what really comes through is the skill of Cowell and his behind-the-scenes cohorts in crafting a weeks-long soap opera that starts with the worst wannabes on the planet and concludes with a freshly minted -- and contractually bound -- new star.

Still, I plan to park myself in front of the tube tonight to watch the final performances and tomorrow to catch Taylor's win. Because that's the best measure of compelling TV -- you watch it, even when you don't want to.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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