Tonight is a big night for television, but I can honestly say that I care only indirectly about the start of FOX’s American Idol, starting its eighth season at 8/7c (airing at the same time on CTV in Canada).
I care because it’s a big test for the current Tuesday lineups – will The Mentalist remain the biggest new shows against television’s biggest show, can Scrubs fail to keep its sampling audience from last week with increased competition, and will Privileged get absolutely destroyed facing off against the Idol juggernaut, (my vote is for yes on all three, in case you were curious)?
But in terms of Idol itself, I learned last year a fairly important lesson. Yes, American Idol remains a cultural phenomenon growing increasingly rare in television, and as a sort of background distraction remains an entertaining exercise in reality competition programming. But I no longer feel like I absolutely need to know what is happening. That desire to be constantly aware, my critical side outweighing the quality of the show in order to judge the talents of those twenty-plus semi-finalists, has dissipated in favour of sheer ambivalence. It is not that I am rallying against Idol as a sign of television’s pending doom (unless the ratings take a sizeable hit, at which point it will surely be the sign of some sort of apocalypse), but rather that disconnecting myself is almost too easy.
The show has done its best this year to try to recapture our attention: they’ve added a fourth judge (Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter, pictured above with the usual crew), and are promising a refocused attention on the middle rounds. They have a new production team, with Nigel Lythgoe off dancing his way around the globe, and they are promising the usual: best season ever, amazing talent, rainbows and puppy dogs, anything you could ever imagine.
And it could all be true: I think that moving into the middle rounds as a focus area is a really smart move, primarily because it is the section wherein we get the best chance to meet these people before they move onto television. The show has always had an unfortunate knack for putting people through to the semi-finals who are so bland and generic that they didn’t even bother showing any footage of them. The result is that they either fade into the background so quickly that they were a wasted addition, or they overcompensated for their lack of screentime and flamed out quickly. And news that they’re bringing back the Wild Card round is a not so subtle play at our nostalgia, as those of us who watched from the beginning surely remember the days when the castoffs weren’t quite castoffs, and America was given one last chance to make things right.
It’s the most changes we’ve seen to the show in a single season since its premiere, but I have to admit that all of it still feels like window dressing. I seriously doubt that a few extra backstage encounters with contestants earlier in the competition will really change the end result: a star-studded finale where two contestants each with their own engaging qualities face off. And I’ll probably be there for that, to be honest with you: not only is it easy to break up with American Idol, but I even think that I could probably see it off and on and not feel like I’m forced into some sort of long term engagement.
But if a group of people are sitting around and watching an episode, and I’ve got some time for a break, don’t hold it against me if I stop by and take a gander – old habits die hard, I guess.
American Idol opens its season with two nights of two-hour audition specials tonight and tomorrow at 8/7c on FOX and CTV. Next week, the show shifts to its usual one-hour segments at the same time, followed by the winter premiere of Fringe on Tuesdays and the series premiere of Lie to Me on Wednesdays.