Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to make American Idol better

Despite proclaiming this year's Idol crop as "the best ever" and making a few tweaks to the format (instruments! Call-ins! Not a mentor every single week!), Idol ratings and viewer satisfaction have dropped significantly. Is it strike-induced viewer apathy (after all, even Grey's, Lost and CSI are down, too, though Lost is in a period of creative excellence). Is it the normal ratings curve for an aging show? Perhaps, though it still tops the charts and moves the iTunes needle. Has the contestant pool simply dried up? Maybe, though David Cook and Carly would have exceled in any season. Personally, I think they need to do make some more adjustments to the formula in the offseason, and here's a handy checklist for the producers.

Starting with the Top 12, give them more time to perform the song. No, no one wants an already bloated show to expand with even more fluff. And suggesting "more" of something that clearly isn't firing on all cylinders is kind of counter-intuitive. But cut down on the bullshit "schtick" and sappy backstories, and devote more airtime to the actual singing. Think about Michael Johns' "Day In The Life" and David C's "Baba O'Reily" being expanded and given room to breathe and build. This would give the talent a chance to shine and show what they've got across more of a song. There are several other positives inherent in this:

  • It would give more opportunities to separate the wheat from the chaff. How many lyrics could Psychlo Terl have forgotten if he had to remember more than 2 verses? How much exposure would we have had to his thin, wispy voice, and would the judges (and fans) have picked up on this?
  • It would cut down on the melisma, or make it unbearable or unperformable. Surely Syesha couldn't shriek and yell her way through 2 and a half minutes without her head exploding or turning blue from lack of oxygen? And even my dear, beloved Carly threw down her fair share of overwrought belting. What if you had another minute or to so showcase the vocal, and still hit the trademark Idol power note? Wouldn't that reduce the "yelling content" of any given performance by 30 – 40%?
  • The show could run two hours when we get to the 12, then whittle its way down to 90 minutes. That would also give FOX a chance to attempt yet another sitcom launch in the cushy pimp spot afterwards.

Pick more expansive themes. Having one or two "tight" themes works well to see what the contestants do outside their comfort zone (such as country night or Andrew Lloyd Weber night, which was really one of the highlights of the season, and not just for his impeccable guidance and helpful, cheeky commentary). But it's hard to criticize someone for their song choice when there are really only 10 – 15 songs (or fewer) anyone has heard to work with. You could make it as broad as "ballads" (though that might kill me personally), rock songs, blues songs, 60s/70s/80s/90s/00s, standards, English songs, number one hits, famous B-Sides, etc. Song selection would come more into play, and the contestants would have more room to choose something they can perform admirably. Don't pick a mentor / theme if all their songs sound alike. Can anyone really distinguish one Mariah Carey ballad from another?

Change up the judges. Of course, Simon must stay. He's funny, nasty and often the most constructive, and the only one on the panel viewers listen to (mostly) and that the contestants fear and try to please. Randy often makes little sense, and the first time I hear him say something other than faux hip blatherings will be the first time. This, of course, brings us to our seal clapping time traveler. Paula has got to go. I'm sure she's sweet and makes the Idolettes feel good with her praise of their colors, aura, soul and "youness." But does anyone listen? The viewers? The voters? The contestants? Does she ever make any cogent points at all? Wouldn't she be better serving as a behind the scenes and off camera den mother? I'll have to give some thought to replacements, but shouldn't it be someone with actual talent for singing and hitting notes? Who could be personable and a nice contrast to Simon's barbed wit, but who would also add some weight with his or her comments? What about Harry Connick Jr? He's smart, charming, successful, telegenic and most of all, talented. Boy can sing his ass off. His down south personality could be a great yin and yang with Simon's acerbic English demeanor. He could stipulate that a portion of his salary, or of the "Idol Gives Back" proceeds, go to rebuild his homeland of N'awlins. Win Win.

Cut down on the "schtick." No more Ryan/Simon prickteasing. No more phone calls. No more questions from the audience, unless they're submitted ahead of time via email and screened to make sure they're funny and interesting. Truncate the sappy backstories. Make it more about, you know, the actual singing.

Have the judges study, or at least be given a cheat sheet prior to the show. Know that Daughtrey's version is a cover of Live. Know that David C is doing Chris Cornell's version. Know when a performer has created his own arrangement. Know when the lyrics are flubbed (and not just when some goofy stoner substitutes "muh ma la la la umm" for Dylan's poetry). Know when the song came out, who did it, how it performed on the charts. Challenge the contestants on the lyrical content and how they connected to it.

Have the judges give constructive criticism without overusing the usual clich├ęs "Pitchy. Aaaiiiight. Cabaret. Karaoke." Give them a goddamned thesaurus if need be. The contestants, and the audience, need to hear more actual "judging." That stuff can be fine in the early, pre-top 12 going (when I don't watch), but once they get to the finals, they need to hear (specifically) what they did wrong and how they can improve.

Which is better: A. "That was an outstanding performance. You showed great breath control, you gave the lyrics personality without slurring over them, you hit virtually all the notes. The song was about a jilted lover, and you looked into the camera and made us feel that emotion. You need to be careful not to choose too many songs that sound alike and that show only one side of your voice, but congratulations on finding one that fit your range. Great job." Or, B. "Dude, that was molten hot lava in da house!"

Which is better: A. "That was a complete and total mess, and I'll tell you why. If you shout and oversing every single note, none of them stand out on their own. I appreciate the fact that you can hit that power note almost on key, but when you shriek for 90 seconds it numbs the audience. It doesn't give the rest of the song any room to breathe. It looks and sounds like you rushed through the tender opening of the song and just rushed straight to the overblown chorus. You need to clearly show more voice and volume control over the course of whole performance, otherwise it's just a collection of loud moments. Next time, try to pick a song more recognized for its melody and nuance than its powerhouse vocal, and then add your sound to it." Or B. "You are unique and special and look great tonight and even though that wasn't your best, I love your rainbow."

Results shows, except for the last one, should never, ever, ever be over 30 minutes. There's never been anything more suited to the "fast forward" button on the TiVo than Idol results shows. Launch another sitcom behind this, too, FOX. Then, after Idol, air the two sitcoms you've built in a one hour comedy block.

More eyeliner.

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