"American Idol" -- castigated, masticated, eradicated, annihilated -- by an army of all-knowing critics and viewers the last couple of seasons -- is good again. How did this happen? The laws of the known TV universe are well-established: Major hit gets old and tired, then ratings fall, fans carp, viewers disappear, and before long the crepe begins to adorn the old whale.
But "Idol" has defied the laws of TV decline and fall. Ratings are solid, but beyond that, there are some obvious -- at least to me -- improvements.
My quick list:
-- Contestants: Begin with the most obvious first. This is a superlative group. There is not a particularly weak member of the final 13. They're all accomplished in their own ways, while the best of them -- Pia Toscano and Jacob Lusk as first among equals -- are genuinely gifted. That just doesn't happen with "Idol." It hasn't. The march to the final is often pitted with bad performances that reveal a contestant's soft spots or lack of charisma or borderline talent. The show, as shows tend to do, dressed up their failings, smothered them in production values, and pretended that they were actually good, when more often than not they were actually bad. Viewers weren't fooled or, if they were, often wondered why they felt so little enthusiasm for the person they were voting for. Don't forget who was here last year at this time . . . Paige Miles . . . Lacey Brown . . . Katie Stevens . . . Alex Lambert . . . Tim Urban . . . Casey James . . . None of these, I submit, would have been made this season's top 13 cut.
Judges, and Randy in particular: They have worked certainly beyond my expectations. It was a jelling process, to be sure. At first Tyler seemed nervous and uncomfortable and shrieky. J.Lo looked like she was there to model outfits and dispense meaningless little nothings. Randy looked like a guy who looked like he had stayed too long at the party. And then, it came together. The "nice" thing seemed a bad idea, too -- what’s "nice" got to do with picking talent or grooming it? But then, it all turned around. They're serious without snark, lively without silly and intelligent without being show-offy. I actually think Randy's having his best year ever. He was, in some respects, almost the most thoughtful of the three judges, but Randy and Paula tended too diminish him because they were so much about the drama or the sound bite or the personality writ-too-large. Randy's stepped up his game in their absence, and become the leader of our small group, and all to the better. He's the wise elder, the savvy insider, the guy who explains where a song got derailed at "the break," and so on. But it's always dead-on: He doesn't pile on and he doesn't sugarcoat. He simply says what is. The other judges clearly respect the guy and he respects them. It's turned the judging process on "Idol" into something truly constructive and even intelligent. A word about Tyler? A good one: He's come into his own on this panel, as a guy with an enormous body of work behind him and not reluctant to share some of the wisdom he's collected. J.Lo is calm and reasonable. This panel is a major success.
Taped vs. live: Yeah, much of this season has been taped, and I do believe we've only seen one live performance. The others have been taped to live, as was -- I believe -- last night. Why is this good? Because it allows editors and producers to take out the bloat -- move it along, clean it up, made it ready for prime time. The production looks seamless many nights, and it does end on time.
Nigel Lythgoe: Much credit due to Nigel Lythgoe, our new show-runner, and former show-runner, too. Lythgoe and Simon pretty much despised each other, which lead to Nigel's earlier departure. Why the hate? Hard to say, beyond ego, but I do think Lythgoe believed Simon's tough love approach to contestants tended to eviscerate contestants' confidence and make the show more about him then them. Lythgoe's also brought a genuine sense of "show" back to the show . . . a sense that each night is big and special and unique, and by God, you'd better watch or you'll miss something epochal.
Ray Chew: Bands get overlooked, but they shouldn't. The straw that stirs the drink, and this is an awfully big drink to fill. But Chew has been a good, even excellent, addition. The arrangements are lively, rarely dull -- at times too lively, because they can tend to override a contestant. But you'll also note that contestants have risen to the challenge. Chew's arrangements can be aggressive but that forces the contestants out of any complacency they might be felling at any given moment. It forces their vocal range, too. He's also good with various genres -- and Chew's rock arrangements, while aggressively poppy, are still full of real vigor.
The stage: Finally, that stage. Stages are an amazingly important element in a production like this, and you never think about them because you're not supposed to think about them. The minute you start thinking about the stage is the minute you stop thinking about the show. That's not -- you are correct -- good. But this one seems to me to add rather than subtract; contestants aren't swallowed up, but they're not overwhelmed either. There's plenty of room to move, but not enough room to disappear. The monitors are close enough to add to a performance, far enough away so that they don't obliterate one.