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'American Idol': Less for success?

January 30, 2008 |  7:37 am

Sidley200 Is the idea of a low-key "American Idol" an oxymoron?  What happens to the Earth when a juggernaut relaxes? Or when Atlas unwinds?  Does the globe topple and shatter?

Impossible as it sounds, that was the vibe on TV's biggest hit Tuesday night as Ryan and the gang took Omaha. Taken as a whole, it felt not like a sloppy night -- the "Idol" machine never cuts corners -- but as if somehow the show’s trademark slowly growing drumbeat towards the Kodak had been dialed down a few notches. It was almost as if the team was becoming a bit too comfortable with its place in history. In Omaha we saw Paula show up late, Simon almost nonchalantly wave half the night’s contestants (the ones we saw at least) on to Hollywood, another farm boy drawl about the beauty of the prairie and Ryan joke about the judges' overpaid/underworked lives.   

The night'€™s weirdos were restricted merely to an over-enthusiastic Kelly fan and a fairly standard-issue trench-coated Goth girl, both of whom Simon was touchingly indulgent to. The tearjerkingest story was a girl who hadn'€™t talked to her father in a few months.

Could it be that Omaha is just not a cauldron of high drama? Or has the "Idol" family gotten too used to life in the white-hot spotlight?

Or perhaps, could the show once again be playing with our expectations? After last year's reputedly off-ish season, the conventional thinking was that in Season 7 "American Idol" would respond to the lag just as would every other show since Aristophanes'€™ time -- by upping the thrills! Doubling the stunts! Tripling the stars!

On a sitcom, they would be bringing in Jonathan Winters as Mork's son. On a news show, Dan Rather would suddenly be sharing an intro with Connie Chung and standing in the middle of hurricanes. On a soap opera, characters slain seasons ago would be discovered alive in the mountains and the family living room would be converted into a brothel. On "Lost," they would find a polar bear up a tree and forget to push the button to keep the world from exploding.

But on "American Idol," we have thus far been treated to a pre-season that is, if anything, a downshift from last year. The formula remains intact but with just a tiny bit less weirdo abuse, a few less-produced novelty segments, no guest celebrity judges, and all in all, slightly fewer reminders about the size, scope and world-shattering import of the whole thing.

Then there'€™s this possibility: That on "American Idol" -- the universe's most supremely self-confident and self-aware show -- they are responding to the challenge of how to bolster their show by actually turning it down a notch. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has repeatedly said in interviews that he plans to focus on the contestants more this season, but who could have imagined that he would take things to such extremes? If Idol is responding to the challenge by underplaying production values and reining in the hype machine, it would be a historic first in entertainment history. The season will tell whether a smaller production means in the end, a bigger drama.

And by the way: Based on her performance last night, I am declaring Samantha Sidley the new front-runner -- even though I know it is impossible for an L.A. native to win. Which raises the question, why is an L.A. girl trying out in Omaha? Was the 405 closed the days of the San Diego auditions?

P.S.: A million thanks to the venerable Todd Martens for filling in this space last week.  A fine, hard-nosed reporter with a heart of stone, as his reports demonstrated.  I look forward to continuing the debate with him, and setting him straight, in the comments section where he will weigh in.

--Richard Rushfield

(Photo courtesy FOX)