'Idol,' 'Dancing' evoke TV's wonder years

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"You brought music back into this house," Capt. Von Trapp tells Maria the governess in "The Sound of Music." This is precisely how I feel about Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," two terrifically engaging shows that are winding up their annual runs in the next few weeks.

These programs brought music back into the American TV-watching home and also brought it back into prime-time television, from which it had been largely absent since the 1970s. Where there had once been singing and dancing and the playing of instruments, prime time now was dominated by autopsies, forensic investigators, ghosts, killers, open wounds and something capriciously if not preposterously known as "reality."

Many of the crime-fighting shows were, and still are, extremely good ones, with production values that make them look more like motion pictures than episodic television. Some of the reality shows have been entertaining, too, but usually in the same way that nasty gossip about the neighbors is entertaining.

"American Idol" is sometimes lumped with reality shows and it has that element -- folks-next-door battling it out in a contest. But instead of fighting leeches, bugs, parasites and each other, as on CBS's "Survivor" and other shows that imitate it, the "American Idol" contestants, of course, sing. They sing their little hearts out, maybe even their little brains out, and eventually as all the world knows, a winner is chosen and becomes a star, and runners-up often become stars, too.

While some viewers tune in to root for favorites and to see who'll win, some of us just like the idea of having people sing on television, with the competitive part being a mere detail. Making music on TV used to be as common as commercials. In the '60s and '70s, prime time was stuffed with variety shows headlined by such major and treasured talents as Carol Burnett, Red Skelton, the Smothers Brothers and Richard Pryor, who had a very brief comedy-variety hour on NBC that was censored literally to death.

But as the '70s began, two classics of the variety genre ominously expired, and an era was going away with them: "The Ed Sullivan Show," which under-30s probably would never have heard of now if not for the appearances that the Beatles made on the program; and "The Hollywood Palace," produced by TV veterans Nick Vanoff and Bill Harbach, which survived on ABC only from 1964 to 1970 but preserved on tape members of a show-biz generation that had served America faithfully through the Great Depression, World War II and more.

While Sullivan had the Beatles, "Hollywood Palace" offered the national TV premiere of the Rolling Stones, on an edition of the show hosted by, of all people, Dean Martin. He reputedly ad-libbed nasty cracks about the Stones that were subsequently edited out of reruns -- but how about that for a seminal culture-clash moment? The old boozer meets the young stoners.

"Palace," like "Saturday Night Live," which would follow in five years (and change all the rules), had a different host each week, with Bing Crosby setting the record for most repeat performances. It was the place where vaudeville rose from the grave only to die again, with stars of a golden age coming by for, in essence, final bows -- Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Alice Faye, Betty Hutton, Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin (they were married), Milton Berle, Bob Hope -- all of them still icons then in the American pantheon.

The American audience, however, would fractionalize and specialize in the years to come, especially once cable arrived on the scene, and even network shows would abandon as hopeless the goal of bringing the family together in front of the TV set. Instead such shows as "Midnight Special" and "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" were aimed at the narrow but demographically desirable adolescent and young-adult audience.

Thus, another welcome development concurrent with the rise of "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars": Both have all-family appeal, theoretically capable of bringing multiple generations together around one show. "Dancing" is booked somewhat like the Sullivan show was, with some "acts" appealing to adults, others likely to bring in younger viewers -- if none of the performers quite qualify as dangerously hip or even hip-hop.

Still, the current (and particularly amusing) cast of dancing contestants has included Olympic skater Evan Lysacek, 80-year-old astronaut and moon-walker Buzz Aldrin, Chad Ochocinco of the NFL, adorably hilarious Niecy Nash of "Reno 911" and ESPN commentator Erin Andrews, who has had more than her share of off-screen trauma. Andrews gave the show's ratings a boost by apparently falling for her professional dance partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, and gamboling through magazine photo spreads with him.

Obviously neither "American Idol" nor "Dancing With the Stars" is a variety show in the classic sense, but the way they incorporate elements of drama, comedy and suspense is moderately ingenious. Each show has a panel of judges, some of whom are buffoons (Bruno Tonioli, Kara DioGuardi), but "Dancing's" panel includes the sensible and likable Carrie Ann Inaba, and the "Idol" roster is anchored, evidently for his final season, by rakish Simon Cowell. Tom Bergeron, host of "Dancing," has found just the right balance between spoofy and sincere and comes up with wry consoling remarks to unfortunate contestants: "Don't listen to them; they're only the judges."

Two shows don't make a trend, but naturally there are imitations, including "America's Got Talent," which, like "Idol," copies a British original (the show on which Susan Boyle was discovered), and Fox's ultra-ambitious "Glee," which is scripted but features musical numbers every week.

Amateur competitions date back to radio and before, of course, and TV's first decade included such series as "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" and "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." But "Idol" and "Dancing" dress up those simple concepts with spectacular production (splashier with each succeeding season, it seems) and plenty of attitude.

Both shows sometimes air live, another aspect that harks back to television's Grand Old Days, and they thus give Hollywood production crews a chance to work on real television shows for a change -- not filmed programs, which are media hybrids and have none of the immediacy unique to television. The live performances that both shows air are pure TV.

And, clearly enough, Great TV.

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