Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming
July 9th, 2010
LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat in the fall isn’t half as interesting as his choice (nay, demand) to announce this decision on live television after twenty-eight minutes of hilariously awful build-up in which television sports journalism lost a great deal of credibility. Frankly put, ESPN had no idea how to string together a show around such a crass act of self-promotion, which to their credit isn’t a particularly easy task: this was an hour-long special built around a ten second announcement, taking what could have been some interesting pre-decision and post-decision analysis and blanketing it with hyperbole about how this will forever change the game of basketball. This wasn’t ESPN covering LeBron James (which has become nauseous in and of itself), but ESPN turning itself over to LeBron James, which at the very least will have media scholars talking for a long time (or, about as long as it took Jim Gray to actually ask LeBron the question of the night).
And in what is the most shameless segue you’re likely to see all week, this same problem of “turning one’s self over” plagues reality competition programming (oh yes, I went there). For shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance, it’s necessary for time purposes to turn over part of their results shows to a musical guest or some other type of performer who kills some time, promotes their record/show, and moves on with their life. These performances can occasionally be quite interesting, but the fact remains that there’s a tension between the narrative unfolding (the elimination of a contestant, in most instances) and the musical performance, and watching tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance (which, in my defence, I watched immediately after tuning out from “The Decision” at the half-hour mark) a few thoughts came to mind about how shows work to keep these musical performances from seeming disconnected from the series itself.
Season 9 Finale: In Defence of Kris Allen
May 26th, 2010
I’ve got a lot to say about this season of American Idol and the future of the franchise without Simon Cowell, but I’m going to be saving those for a Jive TV column in the coming days. However, since that piece will be more wide-reaching than tonight’s results, I want to comment briefly on two things.
The first is that, in case you didn’t notice it, Idol got a rare insurrection from quality music when Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was used to soundtrack the package of Lee and Crystal’s auditions in Chicago and their Idol journey. I would highly suggest you look up Sufjan if you have not been privy to his music in the past, as “Illinois” (the album on which the song is featured) was truly a revelation for me.
The second is that I think people are falling prey to an easy but ultimately false analogy when it comes to tonight’s results. Kris Allen was, in fact, the eighth American Idol, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that Adam Lambert deserved to win that season, but I think we need to make a distinction between “relatively” undeserving winners and undeserving winners.
[That’s more or less a spoiler, but I figure that if you read this blog and have been watching enough to understand that it’s a spoiler, you probably found out already, so come back after the break and I can defend Kris Allen some more.]
Let’s Drop the 1: American Idol Season 9’s Case of the Top 2
March 16th, 2010
I, like many others, don’t tend to pay too much attention to American Idol until we get to the Top 12. However, I did watch enough of the preliminary rounds to get a sense of this year’s stable of talent, which means that I was prepared for the predictable and unsatisfying evening of music that unfolded tonight.
However, I wonder what someone who had watched none of those rounds would think of these performances: since the performers weren’t quite the tone deaf cacophony that they could have been, would they have deemed this a fairly competent group of finalists despite the fact that there is absolutely no depth within their ranks? In the end, I don’t think that the disappointment in this year’s Top 12 is based only on the talent that got away (Lilly Scott, Alex Lambert), and I think that even someone who came in blind would wonder if this was really the best that America had to offer.
In other words, even a layperson would be able to realize that there were only two competitors who really stepped up to the plate tonight, and every long-term viewer of this show knows that there’s a fairly good chance that neither of them will become the American Idol.
Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative
November 21st, 2009
Following along with this weekend’s Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference at MIT (through the Twitter Hashtag #foe4) has been a really unique experience in many ways, engaging with an academic community I’ve only seen from afar in the past, but there are times when the topics being discussed feel almost too familiar.
By nature of the number of reviews I write about particular shows, I usually end up attacking them from nearly every conceivable angle, but there’s something about Glee that seems to inspire more angles than seem physically possible. The show has created a lot of controversy with its struggle to find a clear sense of its identity from the narratological point of view, which is the angle we television critics have been considering most carefully, but as discussed both yesterday (in the context of its use of music/iTunes to create transmedia engagement) and today (in its engagement with culture) during the conference its brand strategy has never had the same identity crisis.
I want to pick up on something that Ivan Askwith said during the discussion of the series’ engagement with culture, as he argued the following:
I am going to investigate this further, as it implicitly argues that the series’ narrative struggles are the result of an attempt to engage with a manufactured narrative structure (that will in the Spring be the show’s lead-in), a fact which is both understandable (network synergy and business logic) and complicated by the needs of serialized drama over reality programming from a narrative point of view.
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.