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

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; E01

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?

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.

Worse yet, without Paula, and knowing it's his final season, Simon -- the only judge worth listening to -- is totally checked out as he focuses his attention on launching his "Idol" rip-off, "The X Factor," in 2011.

SEACREST MONSTER

Since Simon announced that this season would be his last on "Idol," host Ryan Seacrest has been running amok on the show, like an unfixed Jack Russell who just got word the alpha dog at his local dog park is moving to another town.

Early this season, Seacrest ginned up a breathtaking confrontation with Simon on a live performance episode when Simon called one singer's performance "corny" and "desperate" and Seacrest demanded he defend his position. Simon brushed him off, Seacrest unbuttoned his bespoke suit jacket dramatically and stormed the judges' desk, getting all up in Simon's face and sneering, "I actually was trying to help him out a little, buddy -- you all right with that?" while the other judges, and viewers at home, looked on, aghast.

It's been getting worse every week. On Tuesday, Seacrest kicked off the show by rubbing his hands in an audience member's hair, after which he sat down with his mother, who was in the audience, and gave her a pop quiz about the evening's activities, even though the show was strapped for time because it had to sign off 32 minutes early to make way for the return of "Glee." The judges had to speed-critique performances because they'd run short on time, thanks to Seacrest, who is being paid a ridiculous $15 million a year for his antics.

CLOTHING

"Idol" has always been known for its fashion and its makeovers. That unerring radar apparently got unplugged this season. If it weren't for competitor Siobhan Magnus's Rubik's Cube approach to fashion -- one week she performed "Across the Universe" while dressed as a 16th-century tavern wench taking ballet lessons in boxing shoes; this week she performed the Elvis classic "Suspicious Minds" while dressed in Star Trek Summer Casual -- the season would be a total loss, visually.

But, on the other foot . . .

"Dancing With the Stars," which since 2005 has spent nine seasons figuring out what works, seems to be doing everything right. Starting with:

CASTING

After a few seasons of cautiously dipping its toe into the tabloid waters when casting the show -- a Denise Richards here, a Heather Mills there -- the producers finally dived into the deep end of the skeeve pool this season, booking a lineup of celeb dancers that would make a TMZ chief Harvey Levin swoon, starting with Kate Gosselin, the reigning reality-TV Queen Mother.

Kate comes with the gift that keeps on giving: ex-husband Jon, who, since the show began, has announced he is suing her for primary custody of their eight children, in the belief that if she's spending this much time in La-La Land rehearsing and performing on "Dancing," she must be neglecting the children. (Meanwhile, he and his new lawyer are voting for Kate each week to make sure she remains in the competition.)

"That's how I've been living for two years," Kate whined to her put-upon dance partner, Tony Dovolani, on Tuesday. "Every day there's something huge. I wake up and check the news, first thing in the morning, to see what my day is going to bring me -- what hell I'm going to go through."

"If you fail this week, he wins -- does that make sense to you?" Tony responded.

"No," Kate answered cautiously, sensing a possible trick question.

"Exactly! Come on, let's do a crazy-ass routine!"

When not whining to Tony, Kate has frequently been addressing him in the same way that, on her TLC starring vehicle "Jon & Kate Plus 8," she used to address her husband -- a tone that always caused his toes to curl up inside his shoes like the tendrils of some sensitive plant. Tony has already quit this edition of "Dancing" once after a Kate tongue-lashing. Kate is pure ratings.

Also competing this year is ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews, famously the victim of a peeping Tom who set up a camera to record video of her naked in her hotel room. Now, she's drawing the right kind of eyeballs -- by the millions.

And, some other pervy guy is sending her death threats. And she may or may not be having a fling with her dance partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Again, ratings gold.

CLOTHING (LACK OF)

On "Dancing," shame has taken a long holiday. The getups have become eye-poppingly jiggilicious and decidedly of the "less is more" school.

"Welcome to the world of fabric remnants," cracked host Tom Bergeron on Monday after the cameras gave us an eyeful of the barely-there costumes of Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, Pamela Anderson and professional dancer Edyta Sliwinska.

TOM BERGERON

Unlike Ryan "I'm King of the World!" Seacrest, the more mature and infinitely less insecure Tom Bergeron continues to get positive reviews for doing what a good broadcast TV competition-show host should do: make sure the train runs on time, and make sure everyone onstage, in the studio audience and watching at home feels comfortable, while being witty, urbane and well-dressed.

CONCLUSION

Fox suits are quick to note that the audience for "Dancing" skews much older than the "American Idol" crowd, and advertisers pay more to reach younger viewers -- so, even though it's losing in overall numbers, it's winning. It's true, this season about 37 percent of "Idol's" audience is 50 or older, compared to 61 percent of the "Dancing" crowd.

This does not, however, mean, "Idol" is not badly in need of triage:

-- First dear "Idol" producers, either spank Seacrest until he can't sit down, or send him to one of those celebrity spas, whichever is more relevant, and then explain to him, slowly and clearly, that viewers do not turn to Fox on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to see "All About Ryan."

-- Then, give us a cast of Idolettes that entertain and amuse us, not this year's various shades of blah. And, next year, don't wait until January to shoot Hollywood Week. If you'd shoot it earlier, like you used to, you'd have time to build the auditions episodes after finding out who had actually survived Hollywood Week. Then we might actually know something about the competitors and care about them -- or at least have clapped eyes on them -- before the competition starts. And since this season's focus-group-driven decision to look for "less polished performers" (a.k.a. No Adam Lamberts) appears to have scrubbed the show clean of buzz-worthy performers, you might want to reconsider that policy, too.

-- Then, if on this season's final episode, when we assume you will send Simon off in some special way, you could announce you were bringing back Crazy Paula next season -- that would be brilliant.

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