Is it too early to say that Fox has saved American Idol? Certainly, the signs look good. Critics — including this one — may have groused about the show's lack of teeth after the departure of star meanie Simon Cowell, but audiences have returned with about 10 percent erosion from last year. The industry basically considers that a wash — a telling statement on how tough it is to draw network TV audiences these days. Idol still dominates ratings, drawing nearly three times the key viewers of longtime CBS hit Survivor on Wednesdays and preserving its status as TV's top-rated show.
Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler is drawing raves for his unpredictable charms — imagine a more lucid and gregarious Paula Abdul — and some of the performances from last week's Beatles shows in Las Vegas hinted that talk of raising the talent level among contestants is actually happening.
But with all its early success, American Idol hasn't yet faced its biggest test, which starts this week: the live shows.
Fans will remember last year's cycle went off the rails at this point, as new judge Ellen DeGeneres' discomfort with Cowell became painfully obvious and her struggle to judge performances in the moment became a glaring deficit.
Until now, bad chemistry and awkward exchanges could be zapped in the editing booth. And Idol's biggest secret — how much offstage producers affect the casting decisions judges make on camera — remains intact.
On Thursday, viewers' votes are revealed for the first time while Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson must deliver on-target observations live (performance shows on Tuesday and Wednesday will be taped in advance, to give producers time to work out kinks).
The impact of Idol's decision to allow online votes also surfaces, as viewers on Tuesday begin casting ballots on AmericanIdol.com using their Facebook accounts. Because users there are supposed to be 13 and over, perhaps this will curb the show's presumed trouble with tween girls skewing vote results toward the cute, unassuming guys who have made awful Idol stars in recent years.
There's more at stake in Idol's reinvention than the rehabbing of TV's biggest hit. The newly nice American Idol may also overturn the central cynicism about so-called reality TV: that you must be mean to succeed.
So far, most big reality TV successes, from Survivor and The Bachelor to the Real Housewives franchise and Jersey Shore, are rooted in cutthroat competition, catty fights, materialism and the ridicule of stars paid handsomely for their humiliation.
Idol so far has scored even while muting its penchant for lampooning addled auditioners and ruthlessly criticizing real contestants. (Though the ranting of vocal coach Peggi Blu last week, who told one duo they were going to "die onstage," burst that bubble a bit — small wonder they didn't do well in their audition.)
Even if you hate Idol's commercialization and middlebrow attitude, this offers a reason to cheer the show's success. Because, if American Idol can stay on top by becoming a little nicer, maybe it will spread to a few other shows too — making TV a little better for everyone.
Last Gasp TV
For those of us who track TV's cycles, this is the hind end of the season — the last few weeks when the big TV networks can roll out new shows to catch our attention before the doldrums of summer. I call it Last Gasp TV; one final push to shore up sagging schedules and, for NBC, reboot its schedule after the loss of Sunday night football games. Here's a quick analysis of what's coming in the next week or so.
America's Next Great Restaurant, debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC. Like the Food Network-meets-Shark Tank, this show gets 21 hopefuls pitching food franchise ideas for funding. But it sometimes comes off like an infomercial for judge Steve Ells' Chipotle Grill chain. And, yes, contestants actually pitch things called Pot Belly, Lil' Wangs and Saucy Balls. Ti-Vo, if only for the names.
Celebrity Apprentice, debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC. Excited by the idea of watching David Cassidy and Jose Canseco rip into Survivor winner Richard Hatch for Donald Trump's amusement? For TV critics, it's like the ninth circle of televised hell. Ti-to-the-NO.
Breakout Kings, debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday on A&E. So outlandish it often plays like a comedy, this police drama features convicts who are escape experts given cell phones and a long leash by U.S. marshals to catch other escapees. For those who found Prison Break too realistic. Ti-NO.
All About Aubrey, debuts at 10 p.m. March 7 on Oxygen. Now that Aubrey O'Day, the lead singer from Making the Band's Danity Kane, has a reality show, it is official; anyone with a showbiz credit and some free time can get a reality show. Just don't tell Octomom. Ti-NO.
The Social Whirl
Picks, pans and punditry from the news feeds
Like — @JeffProbst on Twitter. Critics already knew Survivor host Jeff Probst is a smart, perceptive guy whose status as a producer of CBS' classic reality TV hit gives him a wealth of insight. Now everyday fans can bask in his feedback by following him on Twitter during Wednesday episodes of Survivor: Redemption Island while he answers questions and stirs the pot even further.