Ah, the holidays have gone by, the air remains crisp, and at last, American Idol has returned to us. There are few shows on television today ballsy enough to open with a neon-cartoon-man gripping a microphone backed by confetti and lightning bolts, camera swirling by, as Ryan Seacrest, acknowledged heir to Dick Clark, intones campily... "This. Is. Uh. Mare. Ick. Un. Idol!"
Its good to be king, isn't it? This 6th season of televisions top rated (by far) show is nothing if not a gloating, flag-waving victory lap for its producers and recurring participants. The successes of last season have not gone underreported, I needn't repeat them here. It will suffice to say that American Idol, despite running two and even three times a week at certain points, absolutely dominated its competition for viewers and marketing dollars, in 2006. No other show came close. So powerful is the show, so phenomenal its rise, that I take a good long look around the room, lest a fascist fan goon be lying in wait, before typing the following gross blasphemy... Has Idol peaked? Certainly the fear of talent drain is founded, for the show's success depends (whatever the charms of its judges) on its ability to locate and parade for our amusement, fresh, compelling batches of young performers, in possession of extraordinary singing voices. These do not grow on trees.
Many American Idol viewers skip, or skim these first few weeks of tryout episodes, awaiting the eventual narrowing of the field, preferring to see the show's democratic darwinism in its later, more talent-dense stages. Not I. To me, these are easily the most exciting weeks of American Idol, barring the final two or three episodes. For it is here that we enjoy the twin and opposite pleasures of trainwreck-viewing and, secretly, the hope that we'll catch a glimpse of a raw talent, a poorly-dressed, stylist-requiring diamond in the rough. A star.
Our judge panel remains, for the moment, intact. Yes Simon, Paula, and Randy are all here, all back, and all welcomed out of nothing else but warm, familial nostalgia by the viewing public. Sure, Randy may be a redundant hack, and Paula on the verge of a hospital visit for "exhaustion" but dammit they are our Randy and Paula, and they should never, even in fifty years time, be replaced. Jewel, the folk-slash-pop-singer joins the trio for this first episode. At shows end I reflected that it's possible that she failed to speak 15 words, in two hours. Quiet one, that Jewel. Looking at the judges table it was possible to consider this a study in contrasting teeth: Simon's glinting as if hours removed from the bleach trays, Jewel's as overlapped and sideways-pointing as ever.
As American Idol has ascended to cultural event on par with the Oscars, or the Superbowl, it occurs to me that (on this, a show of singing!) perhaps the national anthem ought to be performed at the beginning of each show. Instead, the show begins with an awkward transition: we are informed that because Prince performed on the show last year, and Prince is, you know, from Minnesota, this season's audition roadshow will begin in Minneapolis! Of course, I should have guessed it! The invoking of the Artist's show-stopping appearance from last season's finale has the stale odor of past glories being milked, rather embarrassingly, to the bone.
The first tryout of the new season comes to us by way of a fan who, having gotten wind of Jewel's presence, has come to worship her and at the same time display for an audience of millions a truely terrible Jewel-impersonation. She is mercilessly shown the door. The wrong door, in fact. The exit from this audition room is a set of double doors, one of which is immobile, meaning many of the freshly insulted will have to endure the further humiliation of seeming to be momentarily locked in the room. This Jewel superfan is the first, of several, to be told dismissively, on her briskly paced way out, "its the other door". I have to admit, its a nice touch. American Idol: it's the little things. Jewelfan and her family kick off the night's theme (absurdity) by treating the news of her rejection as if she'd been diagnosed with leukemia. Ryan Seacrest stands thoughtfully by, his brow furrowed as if on cue.
Things, on an aesthetic level, do not improve much from here. The evening plays out as a sort of pageant of the bizarre, its chief offender being Paula, who looks like a slumping, doddery old woman wearing a plastic, halloween mask made to resemble Paula Abdul. Also, is it rude to ask whether or not Ms. Abdul recently had several of her vertebrae unexplainedly disintegrate, for one can't help but notice that she cannot, for any duration of time, seem to sit up straight in her chair. She spends much of the night looking as she did in that woeful TV appearance in Seattle last week: shitfaced. Randy, while I'm picking on the judges, seems to be that rare breed of human who actually looks worse when he loses weight. His eyeballs grow bigger every year. That is not a compliment.
Song choice, a familiar lament of the judges, seems to have hit an all time low. A man named Jesse takes the stage and inexplicably launches into a reedy version of Celine Dion's theme from Titanic. Following him was a still more striking curiosity: a black man dressed as Uncle Sam (old glory top hat and all) wearing boxing gloves, and shadow-boxing while singing, I kid you not, opera. I feel that the phrase "only in America" sometimes gets tossed about a bit too frequently: I should not be offended were someone to invoke it here. Next, a steady string of poor singers forces Simon to reach deep into his arsenal of pained, impatient looks.
Finally! Our first Hollywood bound contestant! We know because we are treated to a long and heartbreaking story of Ms. Denise Jackson's struggle as a former crackbaby (her words, lest you think me insensitive) adopted, and raised by her grandparents. A sentimental backstory, aired for the public, is always a sure sign of advancement to the next round. Even American Idol is not so exploitative as to air a tragedy and then pillory its central figure shortly thereafter. Denise shines, but does not astonish, the judges give her the nod, everybody feels good. The good feeling lasts just moments before it is punctured by Denise's tearful declaration that now, she has become "the first person in her family to make something of herself". Yikes.
Meanwhile, the oddballs pour in by the dozen. These include a plump, pyramid-shaped girl who brags that she can impersonate, in song, the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz. I do not exaggerate. The "other door" gag becomes more amusing with each repitition. A self-professed Idol obsessive, who has the gross misfortune of resembling Miss Piggy dressed up in goth or perhaps a (barely) feminine version of Chris Farley dragged up from the grave, morturary makeup intact, blesses us with a barely recognizable version of "Under Pressure". Simon, ever one for appearances, asks her coldly, before having heard a single note of her awful voice, if she really thinks she can win.
Mercifully, another winner does indeed come along. Perla, a latina with an entire Ellis Island's worth of immigrant pluck crammed in her tiny denim capri's strides in, eliciting a perverty, pen-chewing, elongated "hiiiii" from Simon. No taller than 4'10", her heels resemble stilts, so much so that the line of her feet, in profile, might have been perpendicular to the ground. We, as well as the judges, are instantly charmed. Perla is breathlessly ushered on to the next round after being made to perform but a snippet of a Shakira hit. Matt Sato, who gave a refreshing, clean-voiced take on 'California Dreaming' a song I had previously thought impossible to sing without that echoing female backup which made the original famous, quickly squanders his audience goodwill by collapsing into a shrieking melodramatic fit of triumphalism, brought on by the realization that "she" his mother "was proud of him". Spare us, Matt.
And so Idol plays it by the book tonight, giving us a sprinkling of feel-good stories matched to above average voices (there is the obligatory military wife, around her neck strewn a laminated picture of her husband, who is in Baghdad, a place that could not keep its death toll beneath 100 today, all but the heartless will be pulling for her), but no stunners. We keep waiting, with each and every positively or neutrally introduced contestant, for someone with real pipes to blow. But wait further we must...