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Fallen 'Idol': The champ stumbles, and 'Dancing With the Stars' steps up

With ratings giant "American Idol" showing signs of weakness, "Dancing With the Stars" is becoming the primetime reality show power of network television.

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By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

What has gone so horribly wrong with "American Idol" this season? Why, after a culture-defining run since 2002, is the Fox show, in its ninth season, just lying there like a halibut that's been out of the water way too long? And what finally went right with ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" this season -- so right that it has twice attracted more viewers than "Idol" and last week tied it?

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These are questions that may not require the convening of a 42-nation summit on Cheestastic Reality TV, but for the millions of us who spend entirely too much time watching and contemplating "talent" competition programs, we submit that these questions do require real answers. After all, these are the country's most popular series, averaging more than 20 million viewers per episode.

Our findings, submitted for the record, revolve around common elements of each show -- sometimes used to the best advantage but just as easily to the worst. First, a deconstruction of "Idol's" self-destruction.

CASTING IS EVERYTHING

There's a tabloid revolution going on out there, yet "Idol" producers appear to have taken a bar of lye soap to the show and scrubbed it squeaky clean. This year's Idolettes can't scare up a National Enquirer headline among them, leaving the show looking as out of step with the times as "The West Wing" did during the Bush administration.

Gone are the glory days when Idolettes were discovered to have had jobs at porn Web sites, when an Idolette would issue a stout denial to accusations that she is the chick in the sex photos because that chick has acrylic nails -- and she's never had acrylic nails in her life! Once upon a time, "Idol" producers periodically had to boot from the competition an Idolette who'd been charged with assault in a bar fight that resulted in a man's death, or a competitor they'd just learned had been charged with beating up his kid sister months earlier.

This edition of "Idol" can't even boast a good train wreck. Oh sure, some people are pitching Tim Urban and his mop of hair as The New Sanjaya Malakar -- the spectacularly untalented finalist of Season 6 who sent the network into a panic when he survived to the Top 7 thanks to an insidious voting bloc of prepubescent girls who'd fallen for his gloriously pettable mane. Other folks are even trying to get us to believe Siobhan Magnus is the new Adam Lambert -- last year's wildly talented and controversial performer with his black-polished fingernails, guyliner, crystal-cracking scream and utter disregard for the judges' "notes."

The shocking lack of train wrecks might be overlooked if any of this year's Idolettes possessed a brilliant voice or mad performance skills. They have neither, all being mostly indistinguishable and vocally forgettable.

Until now, even the worst season of "Idol" -- Season 5, which produced "Idol's" most forgettable winner, Taylor Hicks -- brought us great characters like Kellie Pickler, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry. This year's Idolette lineup is so weak -- "less polished" is the official description, which was a conscious decision on the judges' part when recruiting performers this season -- that judge Simon Cowell has been told to take in his fangs, and fellow jurist Randy Jackson actually admitted Urban is being graded on a curve.

WHERE'S PAULA?

"American Idol" is suffering this season from an acute lack of Paula Abdul. During that inevitable period each season when the competition started to get dreary, you could always count on Paula to liven up the joint: allegedly shagging an Idolette, showing up with her arm in a sling after a period of exceptional loopiness with the ready explanation that she had been the victim of a botched manicure, critiquing two of Idolette Jason Castro's performances after he'd sung just one tune.

The Randy Jackson-to-Paula Abdul-to-Simon Cowell ritual was something to look forward to every week: We knew we'd get our Dawg, take a quick trip to outer space, and then get to hear some actual judging. It's taken two judges to try to replace the multifaceted Paula -- Ellen DeGeneres doing Den Mother Paula while Kara DioGuardi is focusing on the flirting-with-Simon bits -- and even that's not doing the trick. Kara's decision to pose nude for an issue of Allure magazine due out in May will, of course, be too little too late.


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