The most recent season of “American Idol” isn’t just a singing competition. It’s also a photography contest. Between the deluge of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion ballads, the show has been asking viewers to send in selfies of themselves watching the show.
Or should I say #IdolSelfie? That’s the hashtag Ryan Seacrest has been trying to unload on America. But as the series keeps tumbling in the ratings — it now averages about 12 million viewers, less as the season has dragged on — there aren’t many TV screens tuned to “Idol” anymore. When teen heartthrob Austin Mahone stopped by the show, he and Seacrest mugged next to each other, like a pair of Madame Tussauds wax figures.
“American Idol,” the most popular and influential show on TV since 2002, has become a plastic imitation of itself. Even when “Idol” was bad (think Sanjaya, Kara DioGuardi, the time Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey never spoke to each other for an entire season), it still generated plenty of buzz. The latest season is worse than the pitchiest note the series has ever delivered — “American Idol” is now a non-event. On a recent episode, a drowsy Harry Connick Jr. turned to Seacrest and asked, “Are we still on air?”
At its upfronts presentation this week, Fox renewed “Idol” for season 14. The show will be on for fewer hours in 2015, although that won’t fix any of its major problems. Even an hour of the current format of “Idol” is agonizing to watch. The show everybody else used to try to copy is now desperately chasing the latest cultural trends. It’s not just the selfies, but a Facebook scroll of the contestants’ fans, the pre-recorded “Big Brother” dinners with banal conversations and the “Hunger Games”-like sound effects that chime inside the auditorium when a singer gets killed–I mean, goes home.
Under executive producer Per Blankens, who joined this season from the Swedish version of “Idol,” the show has grown even cheesier, if that’s possible. Last season, “Idol” lost its perch as the No. 1 most watched show on television, due to, many believed, all the off-camera bickering between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. At least Minaj was entertaining to watch, especially when she arrived late to work and blamed L.A. traffic.
The new judging team — Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban — are like your parents, if you grew up in “Pleasantville.” They don’t fight or disagree about anything. Even when the singing is atrocious, their criticism is safely veiled in upbeat messages. “American Idol” has always needed a Paula Adbul, but now the series is stuck with three versions of her. Lopez, who has been a dependable and intelligent judge, deserves an Emmy nomination for acting like she’s still invested in a show that’s been imploding.
“Idol” has been demolished by NBC’s “The Voice,” which is slicker but also produces better stage performances. If you were to ever watch both the shows the same week, “The Voice” stages musical numbers worthy of the Grammys while “Idol” feels like a high school karaoke contest. Especially in season 13, the talent has been seriously lacking on “Idol.” This is turning into a regular gripe about the show, but why don’t the producers start doing something about it? Surely, there are better power ballad crooners than the casts they’ve cobbled together in recent years. “American Idol” is meant to be the world’s shiniest talent contest, and yet the only polished singer on the show is that girl who sounds like Lea Michele.
If there’s any doubt that “Idol” is feeling weary, just ask the remaining survivors. Randy Jackson is still a fixture, although he’s been demoted to from judge to mentor, a role so minimal, it’s hard to understand why he even bothers. (Jackson claimed in a recent interview he spends four days a week with the contestants.) Even Seacrest doesn’t seem as invested either. Why do I say that? He’s stopped shaving.
I might be in the delusional minority, but I still think “Idol” can be rescued. It will need a drastic reboot, but it seems like Fox is more inclined to let the series die quietly. It’s a mystery why all three judges would even be invited back next season. Aren’t they as tired of the bad singing as the rest of us?