American Idol in Review: Season 8

GROUP PERFORMANCES

JESSICA BADER: As the business portion of the Idol results show takes up only a small fraction of the allotted time (and this was true even when it only ran a half-hour), filler has been a major part of Wednesday nights since the very beginning of the show’s existence. Having all of the contestants sing as a group (with the song or medley of songs usually being at least tangentially related to the previous night’s theme) has been a results show staple since Idol’s first season way back in the summer of 2002. The overall talent level of the top 12 has fluctuated from year to year, but I cannot remember a season before this one where the group songs stunk this badly. Season 8 had a larger number of vocally talented contestants than some other years could boast (yes, Season 5, I’m looking at you), but having multiple good singers on the stage at the same time is no guarantee that they will sound good together. For whatever reason (perhaps the gender imbalance, which became more extreme as the season progressed), Season 8′s finalists just were not pleasant to listen to as a group, even in performances where blatant lip-syncing (a truly sad thing for a competition based on live singing ability, and something I do not remember the show resorting to for the group performances in the past) should have made it easier for the final product to sound halfway decent. To illustrate what I mean, watch this clip of  the top 7 from Season 1 singing “Joy to the World”:

Original Video – More videos at TinyPic
then relive the experience of this year’s top 13 butchering “So What” during the finale:

STEVE MURPHY: Lip-syncing on American Idol should be outlawed.  Even the guest singers should be forced to sing for real or simply not appear.  It’s a singing competition.  To use prerecorded tracks is to bastardize the entire point of the show.  Why not just let the contestants prerecord each week’s performance, to make sure it’s right?  And of course they’ll need a little auto-tune….  Where does this path lead?  As if the Ford videos weren’t offensive enough!  They claim the group song can’t be live because it’s too technically challenging with all the mics and band members.  Why hasn’t that been a problem in previous seasons?  And even if that is true… if it can’t be done live, don’t do it at all!

THE FOURTH JUDGE

STEVE MURPHY: I like Kara DioGuardi.  She’s more eloquent than Simon but is more willing to skewer a performance than Randy.  Her reactions were often a surprise, loving performances that made me cringe and tearing down some contestants that I thought did well.  I also enjoyed her effect on the other judges.  I felt that Randy, separated from Paula, was more independant this year, giving more critical reviews than I’ve ever heard from him.

The only mistake Idol made was to allow Kara to join Paula, and not replace her.  Paula Abdul does not need to appear on American Idol.  She says the exact same thing to everyone every week.  Those long, painfully moronic Paula soliloquies after each performance were torture as usual, especially contrasted with Kara’s freshness.  Hopefully Abdul is done after this season… but I doubt it.

Oh, and Paula?  Please put your boobs away.  Nobody wants to see them.  Seriously, nobody.

JESSICA BADER: I’m not the biggest Kara fan in the world – she had her share of head-scratching comments and the song she co-wrote for the winner is awful even by the admittedly low standards of Idol coronation ballads – but I see her the way I see Randy and Simon; sometimes they say things I agree with, sometimes they say things I disagree with, but overall they make sense in their role as music-industry mouthpieces. Paula has never really made sense and seems to get worse each year (the crayon stunt she pulled with Simon this year was a new low). The four-judge panel can be a bit unwieldy at times, and I do think that the consistent four-way bickering during judges’ comments was a major factor in the performance episodes running over (this did not seem to be as much of a problem in previous seasons where there was occasionally a guest judge who was only there for that week’s performances and was therefore not really a part of the ongoing battles between the permanent trio). That being said, I would be interested in seeing how it might work if they kept Kara and replaced Paula with someone capable of making sense.

Also, some of Paula’s more boob-squashing outfits were literally painful to look at.

RUNNING LONG

JESSICA BADER: The performance episodes ran past the scheduled time on more than one occasion, in one case by nearly ten minutes. Naturally, on a show ostensibly all about music, the chosen remedy for this problem was to cut the customary number of performances in later episodes (from Season 2 on, the final 5 and final 4 weeks featured two songs from each contestant, and the final 3 week featured three). Rather than eliminating performances, the producers could have chosen to do away with interviewing contestants before or after their performances. However, I think the biggest culprit in the show’s persistent inability to stay within its time slot was the addition of a fourth permanent judge and the new opportunities this provided for judge-vs-judge squabbles largely unrelated to the performance being evaluated. I know that many think that Paula and Simon bickering makes for good TV, but I’d rather be able to see an additional performance from each contestant and watch a show airing at 9 PM without having to resort to DVR gymnastics.

STEVE MURPHY: Have we not been in the live TV business long enough to figure out how to end on time?  It seemed like the performance episode ran over the allotted time nearly every week.  One week Adam Lambert didn’t get to perform at all before 9pm.  His intro video didn’t even begin until a few minutes past the hour (well into that night’s episode of Fringe).  Have we not been making this same television show for 8 years?  Can we not yet figure out how to keep it a little more concise?  I know cutting a comercial isn’t an option, but perhaps the producers could think about shrinking the pre-song contestant videos by 10 seconds, or maybe cut the completely-unnecessary on-stage interviews?  Lots of people don’t watch things at their scheduled time anymore, and Fox knows that.

JUDGE’S SAVE

STEVE MURPHY: Chris Daughtry going home when he did was a disaster for Idol’s credibility.  Daughtry, clearly the most talented vocalist of the season, went home in fourth place, allowing the title to fall to Taylor Hicks (a fact which seems to embarrass Simon Cowell to no end).  And so this year the show implemented the Judge’s Save, where the judges could unanimously ‘save’ a contestant who’d been voted out before their time, to prevent another Daughtry incident.

Unfortunately they implemented this solution terribly.  The Judge’s Save should have worked like this:  let the judges decide in advance who they will and won’t save, and then if one of those people gets voted out, Ryan announces they’re going home… and then lights flash and a bell rings and “SAVED!!!” shows up on the board behind them.  It’s a big surprise to everybody, and it’s a very happy moment.  Instead, they implemented the Judge’s Save in a way that was just mean, forcing each already-voted-out Idol to sing through their tears and defeat to convince the judges to save them.  This added zero tension and inspired only pity for those contestants who never had a shot in hell at getting saved.

And then they used it stupidly!  In my opinion, only three people this season deserved the save (Adam, Danny and Allison, for those who watch the show), and all three of them were still around after the Judge’s Save would have expired.  Instead they used the save to rescue Matt, a mediocre-at-best performer, and did so at a point in the season where it was to be expected (the week before the Save expired).  And so this went from a clever attempt to save a good performer to a cheap ploy to add unnecessary tension and save someone who had zero chance of winning.

JESSICA BADER: I don’t think the Judges’ Save was ever intended as anything other than a cheap ploy to add a little more cruelty to an eliminated contestant’s last song – where once they were only rejected by America, now they got to be rejected by the judges too! From the moment they announced it, I kept telling all of my fellow Idol-watching friends that the judges would not use the save until the week before it would expire, at which point they would use it on anyone other than their least favorite contestant. Even if it were used in a more intellectually honest manner, I still wouldn’t be a fan of the save. What sets Idol apart from music-reality flops like Making The Band and Popstars was that once the judges have winnowed the contestant pool to a few dozen performers, the final decision is in the hands of the viewers, making it something more than an infomercial for some record exec’s handpicked choices. Those viewers have made some mistakes (the Daughtry/Hicks one being among the most egregious), but for the most part they have supported contestants who actually have some business getting a major-label record deal.

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