The High (and Low) Notes of 'Idol'
Friday, November 18, 2005
Fans of television's insanely popular "American Idol" fall into one of two camps. They watch because they enjoy rooting for the occasional discovery of genuinely talented performers, or they enjoy the train wreck of seeing people who have no business being near a microphone destroying a song and acting amazed when they're told they stink.
Whatever your motivation for watching, Tuesday's upcoming DVD releases should tide you over until the show returns in January as "The Best of American Idol: Seasons 1-4" ($19.98), "The Worst of American Idol: Seasons 1-4" ($19.98) and, combining the two and tossing in a bonus disc, "The Best & Worst of American Idol: Seasons 1-4" ($34.98) hit the market.
"The Best Of" disc contains some of the show's more memorable moments, including Fantasia Barrino's "Summertime," Kelly Clarkson's "Respect" and Bo Bice's a cappella "In a Dream." It focuses primarily on the top two finalists from each season, so there's lots of Clarkson (the most successful post-"Idol" performer so far), Justin Guarini, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Fantasia (she's dropped the Barrino since winning in Season 3), Diana DeGarmo, Bice and Carrie Underwood.
A few other contestants are represented. Season 1's Tamyra Gray sings "Feel the Fire" and reminds you what a joke it was that Guarini made it to the final two that year. Speaking of jokes and Guarini, the words of record mogul Clive Davis a week after finishing recording Guarini's CD about him "raising the bar" is especially funny in light of how quickly Davis and the record label jettisoned Guarini after it tanked so badly.
A collection of season recaps is a fun bit of nostalgia for fans, as is seeing the full-length auditions of the winners and runners-up and watching them evolve musically and stylistically. (Watching Aiken's look steadily transform from geek to pop singer in the photo album feature is a testament to the power of stylists everywhere.) Even the most devoted fans will learn new tidbits. For example, Underwood was flirty and animated at her audition, much more so than during the rest of the season. Who knew she had a personality? Or for that matter, who knew she once had a third nipple a la Mark Wahlberg or the fictional Chandler Bing?
There is a certain amount of filler. I, for one, need never see the skit of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on a "romantic date" ever again. The photo gallery is a bit boring because there's no sound with it, but it is fun to see how many contestants you can still name. Apologies to Leah LaBelle, Vanessa Olivares, A.J. Gil and Charles Grigsby -- I had totally forgotten you.
"The Worst Of" features all the note-cracking, tuneless delusional favorites from the audition shows. The guy who did "Like a Virgin"? Yep, he's on it. The crazy blonde chick? Yep. The guy who needed subtitles? Yep. And many more abysmally bad singers, a large number of whom felt compelled to argue with the judges about their abilities. And, of course, breakout success William "She Bangs" Hung is featured.
If you get the combined package, there's a bonus disc with lots of interviews of various Season 4 contestants, extended footage of Underwood and Bice on their "hometown trips" and an "exclusive" Paula Abdul interview. Abdul is all over all three discs, actually. She serves as host and conducts the contestant interviews. Normally I would be tempted to say that this was a bad thing, but one of the most entertaining aspects of watching the DVD is tracing her changing facial structure over the past four years.
For better or worse, the godfather of such shows as "American Idol," "The Gong Show" and "Star Search" was "The Original Amateur Hour." It began as a radio show hosted by Major Edward Bowes before eventually becoming a long-running TV show with Ted Mack. Still later it was revived on cable as "The New Original Amateur Hour" with Willard Scott as host.
A two-DVD set ($29.99) out now looks back at the history of the show and includes numerous clips of the stars who appeared on it (including Ann-Margret, Robert Klein, Gladys Knight, Raul Julia, Irene Cara and Nick Carter) plus the bizarre novelty acts that also appeared (bird imitators, saw players, one-man bands, stomach whistlers, etc.)
Pat Boone, another performer who got his first big break on the show, hosts the retrospective. It has its moments, such as seeing Louis Farrakhan playing classical violin as a teenager, or Knight singing as a child act. But it's perhaps most enlightening as an example of how much pacing has changed in entertainment. The shows (there are full-length shows from 1953 and 1970, complete with commercials, included as bonus features) move slowly; Mack chats amiably with the performers between numbers, and he treats each one politely. Contrast that to shows in the age of the remote control where everything is snappy and cruel-but-funny one-liners are the lingua franca of the genre, and the difference seems far more vast than a mere 50 years.
Unfortunately, conditioned as we are on modern programming, the pace and the preponderance of talking heads over performance clips will leave you itching to hit your fast forward button. Fans of the show may well enjoy the look back, but this release won't make the cut with the "American Idol" generation.