Film and TV

Fallen Idol

There are things we believe in this world. That the sky is blue, that water is wet, and that Paula Abdul is a complete headcase.

But has Paula's own brand of crazy actually uncovered the real truth about American Idol? Was her performance on Tuesday night evidence that the judges' responses are scripted? Sure seems that way. Paula looked like she was reading directly from a script that she didn't seem to recognize. It certainly didn't look like someone reading her own notes, as she claims. More telling, Paula critiqued a performance that due to a scheduling change that happened mid-taping hadn't actually happened yet. Hm.

So two things are possible here: one, that Paula is just nuts, and everything else was fine. Or two, all of American Idol is a complete sham, and Paula's just nuts.

So this begs the question—if the actual competition on American Idol is fixed, then what else might be surprising about the nation's favorite sing-off squirmfest? A number of promising hypotheses pop to mind, up to and including the idea that Ryan Seacrest may not be an actual person. Think about it—with what CGI can do these days, there's absolutely nothing to disprove that Ryan Seacrest isn’t actually a GAP store mannequin with a lot of special effects.

But truly, can this revelation really be surprising to anyone? After all, it's pretty clear that American Idol is a complete put-on in many very basic ways. They don't even try to hide it. They just throw the lie out there, and let you believe it. Or not. Like the "fact" that thousands of people show up for the AI tryouts in cities across the nation, and Randy, Simon, and Paula kick their collective ass over the course of two days hearing each one audition. But that's not humanly possible. Even if the trio spent every minute over 48 hours hosting auditions, each of which might take an average of ten minutes, they'd only be able to see and hear 288 people per city. And they're obviously not doing that, even if it sometimes looks as though Paula has been up for 48 hours straight. So there are levels to the audition process that they don't show us. They pretend otherwise. Just like, perhaps, with the judging.

There are other ways in which American Idol puts the show before the competition, and most of them have to do with creative editing. When the viewing audience sees the early shows, they're seeing exactly what the editors and producers before them want them to see. Not every comment shown was made to the person that it seems to be connected to in the program that makes it to air. Producers encourage bad singers to perform loudly, provoke "drama" that makes for better TV. This isn't unique to AI. It's the bedrock of reality television: establish a situation, choose a cast that will intrigue an audience, provoke reaction, and watch what happens. And if not enough happens, edit to make it seem that it did.

Will this be the end of American Idol? Not a chance. The public has seen the dirty underside of reality television before, and chosen not to care. What kills reality television isn't falsity; it's boredom. Entertainment is everything. In the end, American Idol has the same built-in benefit as does professional wrestling. People will choose to believe. People want to be fooled. People won't recognize what it's no fun knowing. -- Teague Bohlen

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Sean Cronin