Can a TV series be so absolutely dominant in ratings and, at the same time, so unsettled about its future?
That was season nine of “American Idol,” which continued to dwarf most other shows with the sheer size of its audience, even though it had little idea where it was headed.
Simon Cowell, the judge who fascinated auds with his candor and ego, was widely seen as the glue that held the show together. This was to be his last season. Earlier, producers replaced effervescent Paula Abdul with Ellen DeGeneres, a daytime talkshow superstar with scant experience in the music business.
“There was this weird collision and a clash between an incredible amount of interest in the composition of the judges and lack of interest in the performers,” says Matt Roush, TV Guide’s senior TV critic. “It just seemed like it was underwhelming.”
USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco agrees: “Between Ellen doing nothing and Simon and (host) Ryan (Seacrest) in whatever strange homo-erotic battle they decided to wage on air last year, it became a show about the judges.”
It didn’t take long before DeGeneres, an amiable and sympathetic talkshow host, revealed herself as an amiable and sympathetic judge or, as critics observed, not really a judge at all.
“They hired people to judge who don’t feel comfortable judging,” Bianco says. Had DeGeneres performed her judicial duties, he says, season nine winner Lee DeWyze would either have been voted out or he would have learned to be a more compelling performer.
“The sad waste of Ellen is that she could have been a very good judge. She’s not a singer and she doesn’t know music but she knows performance. She knows what it takes to connect with the audience,” Bianco says. “She didn’t work either because of her image as being a nice person or because she actually is a nice person. She felt uncomfortable saying anything negative to these young people.”
For the second season in a row, there were four judges at the table even though there was nothing to indicate the arrangement had improved on the three-judge format.
“Nobody thought it was a good idea,” Roush says. In fact, the composition was changing so dramatically that watching the panel became a distraction.
Even Kara DioGuardi, who had been added to the tight-knit judging threesome of Cowell, Jackson and Abdul in season eight, thought the change did not go smoothly. After leaving “American Idol,” she told the “Today” show that, as a fourth judge, she felt like a fifth wheel.
As if the judges weren’t enough grist for gossip columnists, speculation arose over the behavior of Seacrest. Some thought he had become more aggressive, at times a critic of the judges themselves.
In terms of the talent, it was the third consecutive season that a male contestant was crowned American Idol, though it proved to be one of the less successful conclusions. Lee DeWyze hasn’t exactly become a household name in the music landscape.
“Clearly it had no impact on the industry that I can remember,” says Roush, summing up season nine.
However, Roush says the show remained buzzworthy.
“With Simon leaving there was talk about the end of an era. It began to fuel speculation as to whether ‘American Idol’ was as powerful as we thought,” says Roush. “In some ways Simon leaving was really a plus because it got us talking about the show again.”
TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS
- Alice Cooper performing “School’s out for Summer” with the finalists on the season’s finale.
- The performance by 62-year-old Larry Platt of “Pants on the Ground” during the auditions became a viral hit.
- Ryan Seacrest tweeting the elimination results of contestant Lacey Brown before the show aired on the West Coast.
- Third-place “Idol” finisher Casey James taking his shirt off and “letting his hair down” during an audition after being prompted to do so by judge Kara DioGuardi.
- The subdued performance of Janet Jackson.
In her new book, titled “A Helluva High Note: Surviving Life, Love and ‘American Idol,'” DioGuardi writes: “At one point, I almost bought Depend undergarments as the anxiety over possibly wetting myself from nerves became a regular occurrence. It was torture.”
Lee DeWyze signed a post-show record deal with 19 Recordings and RCA Records just after his big win in May 2010. He released his first album “Live It Up” in November. In January he performed at the NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers and, like past winners, returned to the “Idol” soundstage to perform his new single “Beautiful Like You.” DeWyze continues to hit the road on his own with his first headlining tour scheduled to kick off in June.