Watching American Idol these days is like suffering through the most dysfunctional relationship I've ever had.
At first, I'll admit, it was hate at first sight — as demonstrated by a passionate 2002 column nailing Idol as "a gussied up, lip-synching carnival that passes off children who can warble an Elton John tune as artists worthy of a recording contract."
Anyone who met their future mate in negative circumstances can relate.
Back then, reality TV was foisting a new breed of celebrity on the world — average people famous mostly for being famous. Idol seemed to mint a particular brand of dewy-eyed karaoke vocalist, epitomized by expert-yet-bland former bar-band singer Kelly Clarkson.
Who knew she'd wind up as one of the best performers American Idol ever produced?
But what later warmed the heart of this professional crank was a growing sense that, whatever shenanigans producers pulled to influence the show, viewers mostly voted for the best singers.
It's why R&B-influenced belters Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard took the top prize in Seasons 5 and 2, even though people eliminated earlier — rocker Chris Daughtry, popster Clay Aiken — were more marketable to a mass audience.
Last year, if you overlook the too-long stay of teen dream Sanjaya Malakar, the best singers landed among the Top 4. This year started out that way, with also-rans David Hernandez, Amanda Overmyer and Ramiele Malubay handed their walking papers at just the right time.
Perhaps Idol can reclaim my heart, I thought, watching the two Davids — Cook and Archuleta — blossom into the show's strongest performers.
But then, like any undependable partner, Idol lurched into questionable behavior that leaves me perched again on the cusp of hate. Here's my list of no-nos that have turned me against TV's highest-rated show:
1. I can't stand the judges. I know Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul are mostly space-saving distractions, and Simon Cowell modulates his mostly spot-on criticism to favor the artists he hopes to sign to his record label.
Still, Idol often feels like watching an abusive parent tackle an unlucky child, with Cowell last week criticizing Syesha Mercado for a too-faithful cover of a Tina Turner song, then praising her for nailing a Sam Cooke cover.
2. The show hates R&B. Well aware that its core audience loves rock and country more than soul, Idol seemed determined to weed out contestants with too much R&B in their sound, with Cowell's most withering comments reserved for those who dared do straight-up funky stuff. Hernandez, Chikeze Eze and Mercado all took heavy voting hits when they indulged their R&B jones.
3. Voters stopped ejecting the worst singers. This has happened in past Idol seasons, but usually before the contest gets down to real talent.
This year, one of the show's best singers, Carly Smithson, took the long walk before dreadlocked mediocrity Jason Castro — who performed so badly last week, he seemed to be begging voters to free him from the contest. Fortunately, they listened.
Castro is the interloper whose inexplicable success nearly severed my bond with Idol this year. Even though I've been predicting a win by one of the Davids for weeks, I wasn't sure I cared anymore.
But then, viewers sent the cutie-pie vocal train wreck packing after performances so bad, even his teenybopper fan legion had to let him go.
Now, it's down to Mercado's showy theatrics, Cook's mousy rocker poses and Archuleta's earnest teen idol soul touches. I'm hooked again.
That's the thing about relationships you know are no good: Sometimes you just can't help coming back for more.
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.