Midway through last night’s American Idol finale, Ryan Seacrest introduced a taped segment in which he explained every aspect of the show’s contestant process, from auditions to Hollywood Week, live shows and the finale. This segment served two purposes: it wasted time and insulted viewers, who would surely have preferred another musical performance instead of a generic explanation of the season of television they were about to finish.
This inept programming decision was one of many on last night’s glorified two-hour results show.
Just a few years removed from when the Idol finale was an annual event on par with the Super Bowl and the Oscars in terms of widespread interest from the American public, Caleb Johnson took home the title at the end of a two-hour telecast that rarely rose above mediocrity. Even the celebrity-contestant duets, at their best the source of thrilling musical moments like this, this and this, fell flat, encumbered by ill-advised staging and contestants with less-than-remarkable technical abilities. (The low points were Darius Rucker, CJ Harris and Dexter Roberts low-growling their way through “Alright” and Phillip Phillips steamrolling Sam Woolf during “Raging Fire.”)
Even when the performances were satisfying, none more so than Jena Irene’s long-teased pairing with her favorite band Paramore, the cameras were either too far away, perched behind waving arms and dancing judges, or pointed in the wrong direction altogether. A mid-performance balloon dump during the Jena/Paramore duet was particularly egregious, detracting from both the vocal performance and the visual presentation.
Later, the decision to close out the pre-results portion of the show with a slapdash mash-up of “True Colors” and “Go Your Own Way” was intriguing in concept but paltry in execution, aside from Keith Urban’s stellar guitar plucking.
As for the winner? Caleb Johnson has massive vocal power and charismatic rocker moves but few dynamics and questionable modern appeal. Irene was the more deserving winner, having delivered the season’s two best performances (“Can’t Help Falling in Love,” below, and “Creep”), showcased her versatility with significant rearrangements of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Valerie” and demonstrated 2014 radio potential with her ultra-current “winner’s single” “We Are One.” According to a press release from Fox, the voting results were “extremely close.”
Regardless, American Idol is in desperate need of an overhaul, and not the cosmetic one it’s received during each of the past few years. It’s not as if the show didn’t make moves in the right direction this season. The trio of Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban was largely successful, with more constructive feedback and less wild hyperbole. The fresher song choices and looser theme nights kept the show firmly out of the musty territory it’s tread on in previous seasons. The production was more amenable to the contestants’ original music, although a performance round dedicated entirely to original music was reportedly scrapped at the last minute during Top 4 week. Thirty minutes proved to be more than enough time to deliver suspenseful results.
But for every good decision, a bad one trailed in its wake. The intentional and incessant cross-cutting of the judges’ reactions during the performances ran counter to the show’s insistence that “it’s all about the singers.” An increasingly arbitrary roster of guest appearances (Ariana Grande! Zooey Deschanel! Terry Bradshaw? Grumpy Cat?) tried and failed to mask the fact that most of this year’s top contestants weren’t very interesting. No amount of selfie references and inane hashtags could convince the average viewer that the show’s producers were in touch with what the kids are into these days. The “world-class” mentorship of Randy Jackson was even more airheaded and substance-free than his past twelve years of critiques, which is saying something.
And viewers responded in kind. The performance finale drew the show’s smallest audience in its thirteen-year history, even taking into account the first season, when the show was just finding its voice. Wednesday’s finale event saw a major jump and perhaps gave Fox hope that the show can stop the bleeding in its condensed form next year. But the show will need to do much more than tinker next year. A radical reinvention might be in order. Why not focus each season on a different region of the United States? Let the judges serve as more than armchair critics mouthpieces for the show’s behind-the-scenes staff. Take some cues from The Glee Project and show us more about how these performances come together. And for goodness sake, let Randy Jackson graduate already. Give the dawg a bone.
I have a lot of affection for the American Idol format, and it’d be a shame to see it die in such unspectacular fashion. My hope is that the show will take some bigger swings next season. At the very least, I hope the show can find a more exciting, unusual, diverse group of contestants. Otherwise, there will be nothing left to idolize.