overthinking the idiot box

May 16, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

Idol Attempts:
Trying to Understand the Appeal of America's #1 (and #3) Show

by Joel Bergen

It's difficult enough to convey to Realetists the merits of a Reality show that I love... trying to explain the appeal of a series whose phenomenal popularity I myself don't understand is damn near impossible. Still, to paraphrase Anderson Cooper, "I'm a columnist. That's my job." And so, I'm going to attempt to decipher why a show about a bunch of kids doing karaoke has somehow managed to capture the lack of imagination of this nation (and really, the world, though like a good little American, I'm only going to focus on the U.S. of A.) and vault to the top of the Nielsen charts.

The new kareoke king and queens...
A show about a bunch of kids doing karaoke. Is there a better way to describe American Idol? Is it anything more than that? And yet, roughly 30 million people tune in each week — make that twice each week — to watch these kids sing their renditions of songs you turn off when they come on the radio. Most of the kids aren't even that good. Even the onscreen judge who benefits the most financially from the success of the series regularly admits on air that they're of the caliber one might hear in a cabaret aboard a Burmese cruise ship.

And the singing is all there is (after the first couple of weeks of each season, anyway). There's no scheming, no strategizing, no fighting, no hooking-up (at least not onscreen) — none of the things that typically make for compelling Reality television. Sure there's product placements, Seacrestian filler and inane banter, but those hardly seem like the alchemic ingredients necessary to spin cheese into gold. At one point, the judges were a draw, but now two of them are incoherent drivellers and the third appears to have given up. Simon Cowell, formerly the star attraction, looks as bored each week judging as I must look watching and he hasn't made a smile-inducing quip since Season Two. His metaphors have grown nonsensical and his putdowns rote.

To this day, I'll open up a pad of paper and find these (often embarrassingly shallow) notes (for instance: "08 - Julia hairdresser slightly bad looking, but kinda pretty solid voice soul Preacher's Son" or "03 JD flowy shirt, little curls, weird face retarded lounge song gross").
The thing is, I was once under American Idol's spell. I was among the 9.9 million watching its first installment on June 11, 2002. Between the so-horrible-they-were-funny wannabes and Simon's snappy insults, it was love at first sight. When it came time for the viewers at home to vote, I took diligent (if somewhat incoherent) notes. To this day, I'll open up a pad of paper and find these (often embarrassingly shallow) notes (for instance: "08 - Julia — hairdresser — slightly bad looking, but kinda pretty — solid voice — soul Preacher's Son" or "03 — JD — flowy shirt, little curls, weird face — retarded lounge song — gross"). I went to the taping of one episode that summer and even made a cheesy sign to cheer on my favorite contestant ("Tamyra, You're on Fire!" if you must know). If you come over to my apartment, you'll see a copy of From Justin to Kelly on my DVD shelf.

In the second and third seasons, my enthusiasm waned significantly. Now, in its fourth season, like Simon, I'm just going through the motions. Yet, I still watch week in and week out. But I watch everything. What's the rest of America's excuse? My theories:

In 1999 (in America at least, and again, that's all I care about) Who Wants to be a Millionaire debuted and became an instant sensation. It was like every other game show in syndication that had been on for years but with fewer, easier questions. So why did it blow up like it did? Because it added a personal touch to the old game show boilerplate. We got to know the contestants as though they were guests on Regis and Kathy Lee. We met their loved ones, both in the studio and as Phone-a-Friends. We heard their life stories and how their experiences helped them to know that the President pictured on the penny is C) Abraham Lincoln.

Before American Idol there were other talent shows — Star Search, Showtime at the Apollo The Gong Show — but none gave us a chance to really get to know the contestants and their families. We didn't know who was a single mother, whose parents were both deaf, who had survived a tracheotomy, who had thrown a phone at the mother of his child (or "baby mama"), so how could we care about them? That combined with the continuity of contestants carrying over from week to week adds a bit of a soap opera quality to the proceedings and may be why America tunes in each week.

Those heartwarming backstories also elevate the schmaltz factor, helping Idol fit into the current trend in reality television: Making us feel good about ourselves. While makeover shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy emphasize helping the helpless, Idol is all about helping people help themselves to achieve their American Dreams. Watching a struggling, undiscovered talent blossom into a superstar tugs at the heartstrings — especially when the viewing audience can take a small degree of credit themselves...

Like Democracy, Idol gives the illusion of power being in the hands of the masses. The stroke of brilliance in the creation of the international franchise's format is the unlimited toll-free voting. If it weren't for that innovation, Idol would've been just another Popstars or Making the Band (both of which predated Idol on these shores and didn't make much of a splash). It gives people a reason to watch every week (live, not DVR'd) and a vested interest in the contestants and the outcome. It's like having the home team in the Super Bowl — you might not care about sports, but you've got somebody to root for.

Because of the live nature of the show (necessitated by the democratic eliminations), there's not much the producers can do (after the first few weeks) with editing (the primary reason the show, like Saturday Night Live, is so unbelievably dull). Most viewers have become savvy to the fact that most Reality shows aren't all that real, so there's an authenticity to this series' reality thanks to the lack of editing. In addition, since the producers don't know the eventual outcome of the season when it starts airing, there are none of the tip-offs that anyone who's ever seen a Mark Burnett series can pick up on a mile away (Kelly Clarkson was barely seen at all in the audition episodes of the first season). That's why some of the eliminations (Tamyra, Constantine) have been truly shocking in a way that Survivor's rarely are. I guess that makes for exciting television. For five seconds each week, anyway.

Kelly Clarkson: Undubbed.
Pop culture connoisseurs haven't merely become jaded about the authenticity of their Reality shows. They've also grown dubious of lip-synching pop stars. So after witnessing aspiring Idols perform a cappella, as well as live on stage without any artificial sweetening, we know that when Kelly Clarkson goes on, say, Saturday Night Live, that's really her singing.

And speaking of Clarkson, her second album's sales have gone a long way toward lending the series legitimacy. Proving that she's no flash in the pan proves that the premise of the show is for real, unlike The Bachelor franchise, which has seen ratings plummet as almost every one of the couples has fallen apart offscreen. If the product of a show doesn't live up to its promise, what's the point? American Idol hasn't had that problem yet.

There are a lot of truly inane programs on television. Yet compared to Idol, According to Jim must seem like The Wire. I mean, there are stories to keep track of, jokes to process, dialogue to comprehend. Thankfully, Idol has none of that. It's the TV equivalent of elevator music and the only brain power it requires is the ability to remember which number to dial at the end. It is the epitome of mindless entertainment, and apparently, that's exactly what America desires.

It's hard to find programming that suitable (or comfortable) for the whole family to watch together. Even so-called family shows like Everybody Loves Raymond are filled with jokes about sex. On Idol, there's little objectionable material (unless you're offended by thinly veiled gay-baiting and homophobia, but I think we know where most of America stands on that Episode ).

Of course, in the case of Desperate Housewives, you don't really have to watch; you just have to say, "Can you believe how uptight Bree is?"
Finally, my theory is that everybody watches American Idol because everybody else watches American Idol. Like Desperate Housewives, another top-rated series that is monotonous, tedious and not very good television, people watch because they don't want to be left behind at the water cooler the next day (of course, in the case of Desperate Housewives, you don't really have to watch; you just have to say, "Can you believe how uptight Bree is?" or "Oh man, when Carlos finds out that Gabrielle has been sleeping with the gardener..." or "Lynette's kids are such a nightmare" or "I laughed so hard when Susan tripped/fell/stumbled. That really is the best comedy on television!"). Now that Idol is in the news every week (mostly for things that happen — or allegedly happen — offscreen), it continues to feed off its own hype. How it got to be that show ... I still don't know.

If the highest-rated show in the land reflects or even defines an era (think All in the Family, Dallas, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Seinfeld), what does our present No. 1 say about the state of our union today?

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 4.