America's Winning Losers

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By Tom Shales
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Vaudeville didn't die after all -- it was only in a coma -- and now has returned in a form suitably twisted to fit the times: "American Idol," the Fox network's stupendously successful amateur competition, which is back for a new season with its popularity not only intact but skyrocketing.

The program, airing Tuesday and Wednesday nights, has been very, very good for network television because the show has reached the phenomenon stage, a kind of inescapability. It's talked about, argued about, discussed with gusto, a bona fide annual national event.

It was not an overnight success itself, but "Idol" celebrates the concept of overnight success, or at least overnight recognizability. Thus after one exposure last week, a baby-faced cowboy named Garet Johnson, 18, who in his audition declared, "This is the first time I've ever been out in public, really," became the talk of the town, the national village. He sang "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and, yes, you could.

Ironically or not, the "competition" part of the show's format sometimes seems a mere formality, even a nuisance. Past winners have for the most part been unimaginative mediocrities, no matter how many records they go on to sell. Rather it's in the early stages, such as last night and tonight's editions, that the show is at its most endearing and irresistible, when viewers tune in hoping not to catch a brilliant new star in the ascent but rather to savor an array of ghastly disasters, people who have no more business singing in public than your Aunt Minnie but who audition for the competition anyway.

When the show started, this aspect of it seemed awfully mean-spirited -- humiliation television, cruelty as entertainment -- but the program is such a familiar part of pop culture now that all contestants have to be aware of what they're getting into -- and in fact, some try to be even worse than they really are, feigning pain but reveling in the attention when assailed. They want and get their saucy little scoldings from the three dubiously expert judges: Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and the show's star scowler, Simon Cowell, seemingly merciless in his pistol-whip putdowns of the arguably defenseless (to a fatty in a green shirt last night: "You look like the Incredible Hulk's wife").

The ever-tolerant, easily pleased Abdul ran into a scandal last year when a disgruntled contestant charged that he had been wined, dined and otherwise privately entertained by Abdul, who also allegedly coached him on how to win. Fox supposedly "investigated," but the allegations were never decisively disproved. Something just happened and the fuss went away. No one wants the party to stop just yet. And "Idol" is the rare success that the audience can feel a part of.

"American Idol" has achieved its surprising prominence even though virtually no element of the formula is new. In the 1950s, one of the most popular shows on network TV was "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," a weekly performance competition derived from the old "Original Amateur Hour" emceed on radio by a paternal figure known as Major Bowes and on TV by the bland Ted Mack.

Later, producer Chuck Barris struck fool's gold with "The Gong Show," where there was no pretense of anyone being on a tireless search for excellence. The acts consisted almost entirely of Los Angeles loonies, no-talent lost souls who had drifted west in pursuit of fame. Viewers saw as many reaction shots of the suffering celebrity judges (David Letterman and Steve Martin both served time early in their careers) as they did of the wacky acts.

But none of this means "Idol" is derivative -- only that its roots in pop culture run deep. Now that it's an established smash, one can see that Cowell's insults are only a part of the total equation. He can still, however, say something outrageous enough to get himself in trouble, as when he told a male contestant last week that he "should be a drag act" and was subsequently torched in the blogosphere for allegedly being homophobic. This controversy will have an even shorter shelf life than Abdul's.

How much of the show is truly spontaneous, and how much is plotted out in advance, is a topic of fairly consistent speculation but probably matters little in the long run. In practical terms, calling the annual winner an "American Idol" is a real stretch. The season premiere drew 35 million viewers last week, which sounds like a mighty throng, but consider: In the '50s, "I Love Lucy" attracted more viewers than that on a weekly basis when America had only half the population.

In the '40s, when there were a mere 132 million Americans, 40 million of them listened to "Amos and Andy" on the radio. There you had true American idols. The TV audience, as everyone knows by now, has been fractionalized, split into demographically defined segments by the excess of channels on cable. When "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest addresses viewers as "America," he is talking in fact to only a small portion of America.

Again, it doesn't really matter. The broadcast networks still hold on to the center ring of the great media circus, and a hit like "Desperate Housewives" or "Lost" or "American Idol" helps solidify and prolong that dominance. "American Idol" wouldn't work on HBO because the cable network doesn't have the immediacy or vast constituency that broadcast TV still does.

On the surface, "Idol" may seem a celebration or at least a validation of Gore Vidal's famous quip "Having no talent is no longer enough." The most enjoyably awful performers aren't just ill-equipped, they're flagrantly terrible. Last week, one contestant arrived dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and another leapt maniacally around the room in a spastic barefoot frenzy. Are these extremes encouraged by the producers, even invented by them? A viewer can't be sure, but they do help make the program a festival of American eccentricity.

But the show arguably celebrates something else: American Self-Delusion. Many of the most truly terrible performers do appear oblivious to their lack of talent. They become indignant when jettisoned and assume the judges are tone-deaf, have tin ears, or in Cowell's case, that they're just mean and jealous. "Idol" may represent American self-delusion at its most benign, whereas current foreign policy may represent it at its most arrogant.

Whatever, it really is more than vaudeville rising from the dead (television having been the coffin it was buried in). "Idol" spotlights only singers -- not the full range of performance other amateur hours have presented -- but seems no less significant for that, mainly because such vaudeville staples as comedy and dance teams have become largely extinct.

And while it may have sounded sour notes when it started -- and when it was produced so minimally that even contestants who made the finals performed without sets, proper lighting, even musical accompaniment -- "American Idol" has reached a new plateau now, one that has inspired such similarly themed shows as "Dancing With the Stars" but remains the absolute master of its own domain.

It could, indeed, go poof at any moment, or at least return next year to a much less enthused, and much smaller, audience. Then it would still be a celebration of something American: the American attention span, grown ever shorter by the very medium that has made "Idol" a new national pastime. Inevitably, the program is not just about overnight success but about overnight failure, too.

For the moment, it's one of the most entertaining shows on television -- so entertaining that one can hope the moment lasts. What started as cheap and nasty has evolved into something strangely affirmative -- a show about dreams that's a dream of a show.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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