TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 7 – ‘American Idol’

12.25.09 8 years ago 15 Comments


I wrote my first “American Idol” recap for Zap2it in February of 2003, reporting on the performances by the second semifinal ground of the show’s second season. That semifinal group included Hadas Shalev, Jacob John Smalley and a couple other singers doomed to only be remembered by “American Idol” obsessives. Then again, the top three performers that night were Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, who would go on to spend a lot of time on America’s television sets that spring. 
That was before everybody and their cat was recapping “American Idol” and it was one of my first bylined stories at Zap2it. Since that time, I’ve recapped the show dedicatedly and compulsively. I missed the finale of Season Five (Taylor Hicks over Katharine McPhee) because I was the “Cars” press junket in Charlotte and I missed some random audition episodes last season, because I was in Sundance and forgot that Utah is on Mountain Time. And yes, I can remember the individual episodes I’ve failed to recap.  
If I were to stop and think about the total number of words I’ve written about “American Idol,” the prose dedicated to raving about Fantasia Barrino, mocking Kevin Covais or pondering Haley Scarnato’s love of short-shorts, it might make me hide in a corner and sob a little. If I were to tabulate the total number of times I’ve used “Dunkleman” as a punchline, attempted to parse the empty words of Randy Jackson or tried to guess which medications (and how much of them) were keeping Paula Abdul going, I might burn a little doll of Simon Fuller in effigy. If I were to total amount of time wasted transcribing the homophobic banter between Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest, rolling my eyes watching cheesy Ford commercials, reminding myself how to spell “Fievel Mousekewitz” whenever a singer butchered “Somewhere Out There,” I might be inclined to dust off those long-dormant law school applications.
But I love “American Idol,” too. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do what I do. If I didn’t get a rush out of that first time hearing an Adam Lambert shatter glass or that first glimpse of a Katharine McPhee in the spotlight, the five months of twice or thrice weekly recaps would be an annual blogging Trail of Tears. As grateful as I am when “American Idol” ends every season, I’m just as excited when it comes back every January. 
Millions upon millions of people agree, making “American Idol” unquestionably the most popular show of the decade. 
“American Idol” is No. 7 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade, but this isn’t going to be some sort of argumentum ad populum piece of rhetoric, where I try convincing you that because “Idol” is TV’s most watched show, it’s a paragon of one aspect of what could be called “best.” But it might be close to that.
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When this list is completed, I will have written on 31 shows and only 3 of them will have been reality shows. [Yes, that was a spoiler for the remainder of the Top Six. I hope I didn’t ruin the surprise that “The Biggest Loser” isn’t at No. 3.] That’s less than 10 percent, hardly reflective of the volume of unscripted programming in the decade. Yet any time a reality show has popped up on this list, fans of scripted shows take umbrage. I don’t blame them, but I think that in forming a list that reflects the best of this particular decade, it’s essential to give due credence and respect to reality TV. Nine of the shows in my Top 10 have scripts and artistic pedigrees and nine of them have more artistic merit than “American Idol.” 
But that doesn’t mean that it’s fair to sell “American Idol” short.
There’s a meme that pops up every year in comments on my “Idol” recaps. It goes something along the lines of, “Why does anybody care? It’s not like the show is actually producing any superstars. What? Two stars in eight years? Big deal.”
The music industry doesn’t produce many true superstars anymore, but Season Four winner Carrie Underwood is a superstar in any way you’d define the term. She sells albums. She wins awards. And when FOX puts her in a two-hour holiday special, a strange number of people watch, even though Carrie Underwood is one of the least effect comediennes in television history. She’s that big.
Season One winner Kelly Clarkson isn’t on the same level, but she’s had multiple bestselling albums and she’s weathered more career ups-and-downs than most observers would have expected. Put Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry in a tier below Clarkson and that’s a solid group. Put the bizarrely successful Kelly Pickler just a notch below that.
Then there’s Jennifer Hudson. Her album may not have sold the way people expected it to and her Christmas special may have tanked, but she won a flippin’ Oscar. Because of timing in the 2007 telecast, there was a window of time in which Jennifer Hudson had an Oscar and Martin Scorsese did not. Jennifer Hudson still has more combined in-competition acting Oscars than Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. In the past 25 years, the Oscar count is Jennifer Hudson 1, Meryl Streep 0.
Constantine Maroulis has a Tony nomination. Fantasia Barrino starred in a Lifetime movie about her life. Katharine McPhee and Kevin Covais have starred in movies (assuming you count “The House Bunny” and “College” as movies). Justin Guarini and Kimberly Caldwell and Matt Rodgers have all had the chance to host network and cable shows not directly related to “Idol.” 
A FOX press release in advance of the upcoming ninth season tells me that “American Idol” contestants have sold 40 million records, scored 60 No. 1 singles and won seven Grammys (plus that pesky Oscar). There is no argument that falls flatter for me than the one that tries claiming that “American Idol” hasn’t achieved at its goals. 
“American Idol” has its place at No. 7 not just because it’s popular, but because no TV show has straddled the media landscape so thoroughly in the decade. In this case, “best” is a reflection of influence, of power and of sheer importance, an importance that has dominated television, but also the full expanse of the popular culture landscape. 
A couple other commonly heard criticisms:
“American Idol” is killing the *real* music industry.
You occasionally hear whining from established acts who claim to have lost record deals because of the influx of empty suit “American Idol” types squeezed them out. Yeah. That’s the problem. The problem wouldn’t be that album sales are down across the board and the industry is depressed and those artist weren’t moving units. Never.
As depressed as the recording industry was in the past decade, though, imagining the industry without “American Idol” is laughable. Leave aside the few “American Idol” veterans who have become multi-platinum superstars. And leave aside the far larger number of “Idol” veterans who have had solid, but unremarkable album sales. The influence of the “Idol” juggernaut on the industry goes well beyond that.
For one thing, even the “Idol” winners who couldn’t move albums have been able to sell a single or two. In an industry that’s become increasingly driven by one-off downloads, that’s no small deal. In “Idol” season, when the iTunes charts are only lists of the week’s “Idol” performances, that’s good for business. And it isn’t a shock that whenever an “Idol” singer butchers a classic, the classic gets a sales boost as well. That’s good for business. It’s good for business when “Idol” builds a theme night around a catalogue artist and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s good for business when a hot new artist gets to perform on the Wednesday “Idol” results show. Funny how performing in front of 25 million people can give you a little bump, but it took several seasons before “Idol” could count on booking any and every A-lister they aspired to have on the stage. 
But the music industry isn’t just album sales and it isn’t just downloads and radio play. Every year, “American Idol” produces 12 singers whose names can be used to stir up interest in small venue shows, radio station holiday concerts and benefit telethons. The “Idol” singers aren’t packing stadiums like U2 or Coldplay, but they can fill a club or attract attention to a multi-artist event. They’re recognizable names. In an industry over-populated with one-hit wonders, they’re at least five-month phenomena.
That doesn’t begin to get into the way Broadway has also turned to “American Idol” as a crutch. Got a struggling musical? Cast an “Idol” alumnus and briefly sell tickets again! Got a touring company without any buzz? Find the closest available “Idol” favorite or semi-favorite. Folks like Aiken and Tamyra Gray and Maroulis and Barrino have had acclaimed (or at least not-maligned) Broadway runs, giving who-knows-how-much additional juice to their shows. You’d better believe Broadway is grateful to “American Idol.”
“American Idol” is killing scripted shows.
Conventional wisdom says that “American Idol” is bad for scripted TV. Not only does it take over three-plus hours of FOX’s schedule every week, but it leads to erratic scheduling for other shows on FOX’s roster, which are inevitable preempted whenever the “Idol” producers request an extra installment or two. The show runs on its own timetable, so it also screws up DVRing of whatever comes afterwards, making it hard for viewers to watch all of those shows. In addition, until every network but CBS realized that programming scripted shows opposite “Idol” was folly (“NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” have proven “Idol”-proof), the show probably crushed more than a few rival rival shows.
But then you point to “House.” Yes, it’s a myth that “House” was on the verge of cancellation before “American Idol” saved it. What isn’t a myth is that “House” was a low-rated drama with a small upward growth curve. “American Idol” made it into one of TV’s most popular dramas. Without the “American Idol” boost, FOX never would have been able to launch “Glee” last spring and numerous shows like “Lie to Me” and “Fringe” probably wouldn’t have developed a big enough audience to justify second seasons and to possibly linger for thirds.
In addition, “Idol” has put FOX in a strong enough position to take chances that other networks wouldn’t be able to take. Much is made — justifiably — of FOX’s speedy cancellation of numerous cult favorite shows (most loosely or directly associated with Tim Minear), but without “Idol” raising the network’s bottom-line ratings, there’s no chance FOX could have kept “Arrested Development” around for three dismally rated seasons. There’s no chance FOX could have brought “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” back for a second season. There’s little chance FOX could have seen clear to renewing “Dollhouse.” Yes, “American Idol” raises the stakes for everything on FOX, but it also covers for a multitude of sins. 
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “American Idol” is like fairy godmother to aspiring showrunners, but it isn’t Jay Leno either. 
As Nigel Lythgoe was always fond of saying, though, “American Idol” is a TV show and not what comes after “American Idol,” meaning that what made my list is the thing that airs between 8 and 10 on Tuesdays and for an hour and three minutes on Wednesdays.
With very minor variations — changes in the semifinals format, that stupid Judges’ Save, the pointless Kara DioGuardi (less pointless as an individual than Randy Jackson has been, but pointless as an addition) — “American Idol” has barely changed in eight seasons. Pretty young singers do karaoke and America votes. Sometimes “America” gets it right. Sometimes “America” gets it wrong. Despite what ought to have been an exhaustible reservoir of available talent, “American Idol” has never lacked for gifted performers as people who were initially too snobby for the show came to realize that its benefits could outweigh the supposed dip in street cred. 
Ask an “Idol” fan to list the show’s defining musical performances and you’ll get a  range of answers. Most people would probably include Kelly Clarkson’s “Stuff Like That There” (or maybe “Respect”), Clay Aiken’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (or maybe one of Ruben’s many renditions of “Superstar”), Fantasia’s “Summertime,” Bo Bice’s a capella “In a Dream” (or maybe “Whipping Post”), Kat McPhee’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” Blake Lewis’ “You Give Love a Bad Name” (defining performances needn’t necessarily be *good*), David Cook’s “Hello” (or maybe “Billie Jean”) and Kris Allen’s “Heartless.” Or maybe they wouldn’t include any of those performances.
As any “Idol” observer their favorites winners and the list you get may be even more mixed up. For me, Fantasia ranks at the top and I can’t figure why a producer hasn’t turned her into a better version of Macy Gray. To others, she sounds like two cats fighting over a chew toy in a gunny sack. For members of the Soul Patrol, Taylor Hicks was a deity, while much of the rest of America shook its head in confusion. While the judges raved about Adam Lambert last season, Kris Allen went from barely seen underdog to champion, a transition which hasn’t helped him shove Lambert aside in the media in recent months. The aforementioned Underwood, one of music’s biggest names today, spent five months as an unchanging robot on “Idol.” You just never know who will win or which winners will resonate with America’s pocket books.
You watched “Idol” for the awesomeness and you watched it for the awfulness. You watched to see who Simon will make cry and, in the Aughts at least, you watched to see who would make Paula cry. You watched for the strange guest judges — Quentin Tarantino is probably one of the few who actually worked — and the awkward guest mentors (Randy Travis’ poorly concealed horror at hearing Adam Lambert’s version of “Ring of Fire” was a classic). And you tuned in for the scandals that “Idol” either would or wouldn’t address, the abruptly dismissed contestants, the contestants weathering dirty picture storms, the weird voting SNAFUs. You watched for the musical guests who looked like they’d rather be any place else and for the washed up icons desperate for the attention.
And I would be remiss in not pointing out the 2007 and 2008 “Idol Gives Back” specials. If raising $130 million for various charities isn’t worthy of some “best” consideration, nothing is. Seriously, $130 million. Make fun of that. I dare you.
That’s 2300+ words on why “American Idol” is No. 7 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade and it still won’t satisfy some people. For many discerning TV viewers, “American Idol” played no role at all in their TV experience of the past 10 years. That doesn’t change the fact that when I laid out the candidates for this list, there was no version or permutation that didn’t have “American Idol” in the Top 10. 
Best? Biggest? Most Influential? Most Dominant? Most Pervasive? Most Invasive? Most Intrusive? Most Altruistic? Choose the defining terms you like. “American Idol” belongs here.
Coming up tomorrow? A show with a script! A show that brought love, joy and discomfort to millions.

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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