DID THE JUDGES REACH an unjust verdict? Has one behaved so improperly to warrant being removed? Can the system survive if the public doesn’t trust its evenhandedness?Not to be outdone by Washington’s tumult over the judiciary, Hollywood has discovered the warming glow of faux scandal thanks to competition-show judges. The absurd apex came with the furor over ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” which many felt anointed the wrong celebrity hoofer; and Fox’s “American Idol,” which recently cleared Paula Abdul of charges that she violated her judicial responsibilities by fraternizing with a contestant. Thankfully, she won’t need Senate confirmation to continue. This media outrage, of course, relies on people believing that these judges wield real influence, which is in itself perplexing. Bill Maher regularly jokes about the need for “new rules,” but in unscripted television, obscure rules are constantly being created and then flouted, providing fans something new about which to fulminate. At first rigidly structured in their guidelines, the proliferation of elimination games like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” has triggered a free-for-all of formats that delight in “surprises” and “secrets.” This is especially true of the revised “Big Brother,” which jettisoned its arcane rulebook some time ago, though contestants must still meet the maximum-IQ requirement of 90 or below. In this respect, so-called reality is developing along the same track as another of TV’s core components, big-time sports. Baseball and football keep coming up with new pharmaceuticals to ban, and while there’s little proof that fans will stay away because Baltimore’s Rafael Palmiero has substance-I-can’t-pronounce coursing through his veins, it certainly gives the gang at ESPN a good brouhaha upon which to feast. Whether Abdul ingested any illicit substances isn’t germane to her case, though listening to TV critics pepper Fox execs with questions about her status last month, a casual observer might conclude that her behavior threatened national security. Part of reality TV’s genius has been its ability to generate buzz, and certainly nothing accomplishes that quite as efficiently as the whiff of impropriety. The problem is that most of these shows have become so overproduced, with so few moments left to chance, it’s hard to drum up the requisite indignation. Even if Abdul did everything former “Idol” contestant Corey Clark claimed, I have trouble getting too agitated about it, since she doesn’t determine the contest’s final outcome. Moreover, by lauding every singer for having “seized the moment and made it yours,” or whatever other nonsense spills out of her mouth, she cancels out her own opinions, which possess the relative weight of a development exec saying, “Sounds great. Can we get back to you?” The larger issue involves whether the bad taste left by these sordid little affairs will actually dissuade viewers from coming back for more. For an answer, look no further than baseball, which has survived steroids and corked bats and no homeruns and too many homeruns to somehow keep selling tickets, as fans argue about asterisks but somehow stay engaged, especially if there’s a good pennant race. An even more direct template can be found in the Olympics, where judging-based events such as gymnastics, diving and skating have historically yielded perceived injustices by the Soviets, Chinese or whoever. Yet those competitions remain among the most popular ratings-wise, despite (or perhaps because of) the second-guessing that periodically tarnishes the gold. The same will doubtless be true for “Idol” worshippers and those “Dancing” fools, even with whatever damage the latter might have inflicted on John O’Hurley’s career as a ballroom dancer. At the core of these mini-fracases, after all, are arbitrary rules governing fabricated games. So while the proprietors must solemnly pledge to safeguard these hallowed treasures — and, in Abdul’s case, hire an independent counsel — anyone who thinks there’s much integrity to protect has been inhaling from the Fountain of Gullibility, located freeway-close to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It’s often said in sports that records are made to be broken. In TV, so are the rules. DEATH BECOMES THEM: In the “Recommended viewing” file, “Six Feet Under” concludes its flawed, often-maddening run on a near-perfect note with the haunting coda to its Aug. 21 finale. Those associated with the HBO series have contemplated its influence in a farewell documentary, but the program’s real legacy is an uneven one — punctuated by dazzling highs and unsettling lows. Still, there’s been more good than bad in Alan Ball’s twisted family drama, which is abundantly true of its last rites. Overall, then, the sendoff episode rates an 8.5, except for the judge from Showtime, who gave it a 2.7.
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