American Idol: a final farewell to the 'Death Star' of reality TV

The former ratings monster’s last season is about to start but with directionless shows such as The Voice and MTV’s The Challenge serving as replacements, its schmaltzy sentimentality might well be missed

As American Idol fumbles to the end of its 15-year run on television, critics and other media types have dug up that old chestnut about how TV executives who once trembled in fear at the thought of Idol’s presence on the schedule referred to the show as “the Death Star”. Maybe not the most apt comparison to make, as the Death Star was a genocide machine the size of a moon and American Idol was, at worst, kind of crap.

I suppose Idol was revolutionary when it premiered on 11 June 2002. The first reality boom was at its peak, 9/11 and the subsequent wars had Americans in what I like to call “a bit of a mood”, and audiences had never seen such a bloated, self-important spectacle dedicated to a talent contest. Plus, we all got to vote on it! Finally, Americans could have their voice heard in an election that refreshingly wasn’t rigged. Every year, we got to elect some ropey crooner to act as the avatar for our collective aspirations. There were heroes (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood) villains to thwart (Simon Cowell, Sanjaya apologist Howard Stern), and the insidious sideshow acts that livened up the audition round. I have the distinct honor of one day being able to tell my children that even though I never served in the military or fought for their freedom, I did live through the William Hung phenomenon and resisted the temptation to capsize my brain with a sack full of remote controls.

All that “triumph of the human spirit” stuff – the smiling, the positivity, the aw-shucks wholesomeness – eventually lost its appeal, and American Idol’s ratings collapsed. In the meantime, producers and networks perfected (or in some instances, mutated) the reality talent show. When NBC’s The Voice premiered, it was billed as being more forgiving to true talents because the judges couldn’t see if the contestants were ugly or not. Horrifyingly, some of them did end up being ugly. The nerve of them. This is broadcast television, for God’s sake, not the Food Network!

Fortunately for Americans unused to seeing normies on TV, the producers increasingly focus their program on the banter between the hosts and the flashy cameos by pop stars hoping to promote their new albums. The contest is almost a distraction from whether or not Adam Levine and Blake Shelton are going to fight or run away to Ibiza with each other (though Levine would have to deal with Gwen Stefani if they did). On Idol, the judges were there to serve the holy mission of crowning a new megastar. On The Voice, the contestants could be juggling for all I care. I don’t remember what the prize is for winning The Voice, but I think it’s a first-class plane ticket back home.

Then there’s the truly apocalyptic stuff like MTV’s The Challenge, currently in its bajillionth season. It’s not a singing show, but it does take a certain amount of talent to participate – mostly a talent for anti-social behavior, binge drinking, and feats of strength. It’s part-Survivor, part-Real World, part-Intervention. When the players aren’t competing in games like “move this flag from one side of a lake to another” or “push this boulder up a hill”, they are threatening to punch each other. It’s pretty nihilistic stuff, all barely held together by laconic host TJ Lavin, whose major pet peeve is quitters, which he will mention whenever he can. Whereas American Idol meant to lift you up by the end of its runtime, The Challenge would prefer you go out and kick a dumpster.

“I love chicken too” - The Bachelor
The Bachelor: ‘I love chicken too.’ Photograph: Rick Rowell/ABC

Elsewhere, there’s ABC’s The Bachelor – a steady ratings performer that premiered the same year as American Idol. The Bachelor occasionally feels just as old-fashioned as its reality sibling. On both shows, the prize isn’t a pile of cash or a sports car – on Idol, it’s stardom and on Bachelor, it’s a monogamous relationship. Sure, there’s a recording contract and a marriage license that are physical, but really, it’s intangible desires that both shows are satisfying. We all want love and most of us would like to be famous. But while Idol got even more sickly sweet after Simon Cowell pissed off to pilot the American version of The X-Factor into the ground, The Bachelor gets more self-referential, absurd and intentionally comedic every season. In Monday’s season premiere, we were introduced to contestants like Tiara, who listed her occupation as “chicken enthusiast”; Lace, whose name and sour temperament remind me of my favorite American Gladiator; and Mandi, a dentist who, upon meeting this season’s Bachelor Ben Higgins, gave him an oral exam.

As Idol marched to the grave, it re-emphasized the talent part of the format. Svengalis like Cowell and Randy Jackson gave up their seats at the judges’ table to accomplished pop acts such as Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. The contest started to matter more, even though we all cared less. The producers of The Bachelor know that a sizable portion of its audience, cheekily known as “Bachelor Nation”, is wise enough to see through the artifice of it all and aren’t so naive that they believe the marriages dramatized on the show aren’t primarily for the benefit of the cameras. There’s an irreverence and a thinly veiled sarcasm that’s kept the show fresh as the same narrative gets repeated season after season across the multiple series in the franchise. It’s the television equivalent of air quotes. It matters, but it doesn’t actually matter at all.

American Idol will die as it lived, though – self-important and unrelentingly pretentious. We will be reminded that it’s a “cultural institution”. I can think of another cultural institution that was popular in America and used to be a big hit on TV: beauty pageants. Miss America and its ilk aren’t all that different from American Idol – they reward bland aesthetic perfection and claim to be life-changing moments for the winner. They’re both spectacles to the extreme. Pageants are about as trendy as frosted blonde tips or Fred Durst. The only way to get Americans to care about a beauty pageant is for something to go horribly wrong. I’ll be watching the live Idol episodes this season, silently praying somebody screws up. Maybe J-Lo’s extensions fall out or Sanjaya comes back to demand his revenge. Better yet, what if Harry Connick Jr endorsed Cliven Bundy for president? I’ll take just about anything over the next few weeks of tedious, back-slapping nostalgia.

American Idol is on Fox tonight at 6pm EST


Dave Schilling

The GuardianTramp

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