What Went Wrong On American Idol

This week, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox head to L.A.’s Nokia Theater for what is likely to be the most anti-climactic and least-watched “American Idol” finale ever, capping off a season that some (and by “some,” I mean me) would argue was the worst season in “Idol” history.

However, despite the imminent departure of Simon Cowell and the overall lukewarm reception to Season 9, “Idol” will in fact be back for a 10th season in 2011, albeit with some programming changes. Auditions won’t start up until this September (presumably so producers can search for a permanent Simon replacement); the Tuesday one-hour competitive shows will be extended to 90 minutes (presumably so the judges’ critiques won’t be frustratingly cut short); and the usually filler-filled Wednesday results shows will go back to being a cut-to-the-chase 30 minutes instead of an unnecessarily dragged-out hour.

These are all good developments. But “Idol” is a going to have to do a lot more than tweak episode length to ensure Season 10 is an improvement over Season 9. So…what exactly went wrong this year? And what can be done to get “Idol” back on track in 2011? Here’s what I suggest.

Get rid of Ellen DeGeneres – There, I said it. Look, I love me some Ellen. When it was announced that she’d be the new “Idol” judge this season, many balked, but I defended her. I gave her a chance. And I do think she tried her best, took the job seriously, occasionally offered some good comic relief (her “Yes, I have loved a woman line!” was classic), and decently filled the “nice judge” role vacated by the sympathetic and sweet Paula Abdul. But Ellen is not a music expert, so most of the time she was just out of her depth. Her critiques added nothing valuable to the show and offered no real help to the contestants themselves.

Tell Kara DioGuardi to chill out – Kara is a respectable showbiz veteran with an impressive list of songwriting and production credits on her résumé, but you’d never know it from the flighty way she acted this season. It was as if she felt pressured to fill Paula Abdul’s “wacky” role too, so she resorted to insufferable behavior like flirting with Simon Cowell and, more blatantly, with hunky finalist Casey James. It was embarrassing to watch. Kara should just stick to being the straight woman and doing what she was hired to do in the first place: Draw from her industry expertise and give constructive criticism, period.

Bring back Paula Abdul, please – See the two bulletpoints above, duh. Clearly, no one can replace Paula. She’s forever “Idol’s” girl.

Recruit more great guest judges and mentors – This is one thing “Idol” did right this season. Early-round guest judges like Katy Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, and Kristin Chenoweth kept the audition process interesting, and mentors like Harry Connick Jr. and Adam Lambert singlehandedly salvaged otherwise boring episodes. More mentorships from past Idols, a la Lambert, would be an especially nice touch–how about Kelly Clarkson or David Cook in Season 10? I’d settle for Norman Gentle, even.

Keep Ryan Seacrest from going insane – Do we really need Seacrest Out-Of-It cracking mean jokes at Brian Dunkleman’s expense, slow-dancing in the aisles, or engaging in awkward, double-entendre-laden banter with Kara? Just re-hire Paula if the show needs wacky antics that badly. Or re-hire Dunkleman, come to think of it.

Don’t predict the winner too early – The “Idol” producers always mess it up when they tell the viewers who to vote for. That’s how they ended up with Taylor Hicks instead of Chris Daughtry. That’s why their mega-pimped frontrunner Adam Lambert lost last year. And that why only one female contestant made the top five this year, despite all the hype about this being a “girls’ season.” In Season 10, the producers should just let viewers make up their own minds–and maybe then the producers will actually get the result they wanted all along.

Don’t pack the top 24 with too many soundalikes – “Idol” producers seemed dead-set on having a “quirky girl” win this season. So they chose semifinalists like Lilly Scott, Katelyn Epperly, Lacey Brown, Janell Wheeler, Didi Benami, Siobhan Magnus, and Crystal Bowersox. All of them were talented and in any other season may have stood out, but instead they cancelled each other out early on, and only Crystal ended up with a real shot of winning. Next year, producers need to make sure there’s variety in the top 24, so that each contestant can find a distinct fanbase. This will make for a more interesting season, too.

Don’t pack the top 24 with past-season knockoffs – The aforementioned quirky girls of Season 9 were all too similar to Brooke White or Megan Joy. Aaron Kelly was David Archuleta 2.0. Michael Lynche sometimes seemed like a Ruben Studdard impersonator. Lee DeWyze was a poor man’s David Cook. Andrew Garcia’s one shining moment (“Straight Up”) was pulled right from the Kris Allen playbook. When the current contestants are too similar to past (some might say better) ones, not only are comparisons inevitable, but viewers feel like they’re watching reruns. Fox might as well just air “American Idol Rewind” instead.

Make sure the best contestants don’t exit too early – I’ve been daydreaming for weeks about how much more exciting Season 9 could have turned out if Lilly Scott, Alex Lambert, or even Tyler Grady had made the top 10. “Shocking” eliminations may make for short-term ratings gains, but they ruin the show in the long-term. But how can such unjust eliminations be prevented? Well, keep reading the next three bulletpoints…

Bring back the Wild Card – Without the Wild Card, we wouldn’t have “Idol” success stories like Clay Aiken and Jennifer Hudson. We wouldn’t even have last year’s Matt Giraud, Anoop Desai, or Megan Joy, all of whom helped make Season 8 one of the best seasons in the series’ history. Sometimes America does get it wrong, and they get it wrong early, before they’ve had a chance to get to really know the contestants. In those cases (before the top 12), the Judges’ Save doesn’t mean squat. That’s when the Wild Card is needed. The Wild Card could have given Lilly, Alex, or even the colorful and polarizing Todrick Hall another shot. Bring. It. Back.

Change the elimination process – On shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew,” the judging is a combination of audience input and professional expertise: The bottom two or three, as decided by public vote, perform for their lives, and the judges choose who to cut after that. A process like that on “Idol” would be a better way of ensuring that the right people stay on the show, as opposed to the one-time-only Judges’ Save.

Keep tween girls and their moms from voting – A female singer, no matter how talented, may never win “Idol” again as long as America’s desperate housewives are mooning over shirtless himbos and their impressionable daughters are block-texting for pinup-ready pretty-boys. (Read my article here for more on this troubling phenomenon.) Just confiscate their cell phones every Tuesday night between February and May. Problem solved.

Clear some more songs, already – Do we really need to hear “Let It Be,” “Feeling Good,” “Ain’t So Sunshine,” “Hallelujah,” or “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” again??? Some intern at Fox needs to place a call to BMI and ASCAP, now.

Do away with all the old-fashioned weekly themes – Throughout Season 9, the “Idol” judges harped on how important it was for the contestants to come across as “current” and “relevant.” But then they made the contestants warble decades-old songs by Elvis, Lennon & McCartney, the Stones, Sinatra, et al. And even when the contestants were left to their devices, they opted to sing songs by Motown acts or the Box Tops. Way to engage the younger demographic, “Idol”! How about next season coming up with a theme like, I dunno, CURRENT TOP 40 HITS? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Choose Simon’s replacement very, very wisely – This is perhaps the most important point on this list. For many viewers, Simon Cowell IS “American Idol”–there is no show without him. One of the many things than made Season 9 so disappointing was the growing suspicion that Simon was a lame-duck judge, already mentally checked out and not giving 100 percent…so I can only imagine how much the show will suffer once he leaves for real. Many Simon replacements have been suggested–my personal picks are Noel Gallagher of Oasis, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, or superproducer Steve Lillywhite, who’s currently campaigning aggressively for the job–but whoever it is, he or she better be good. If not, expect much of the “Idol” audience, myself included, to defect to “X Factor U.S.” in 2011.

Posted in American Idol.

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