AI7 Report Card: The season that was

by Jason Hughes, posted May 27th 2008 1:03PM
AI7 Top 12We scoured the earth (and the archives at various record companies for failed projects that showed vocal promise) to create the greatest assemblage of singing talent American Idol has ever seen! So what happened? After last year's virtual snooze-fest, how did a season that truly did give us perhaps the greatest depth of talent we've ever seen (an argument could be made for Season Five) give us such lackluster shows?

After Sanjaya-gate last year, the biggest controversy to come out this year was that finalist David Hernandez used to be a stripper and David Archuleta's dad might be a Mr. Meany-Pants. And we got to be pissed that Kristy Lee Cook outlasted the likes of Michael Johns. Not until we got to the finale of Davids did things get really intense.

Gallery: AI '08 Top 24

Amy DavisJoanne BorgellaTop 24 RevealedGarrett HaleyColton BerryDavid ArchuletaRobbie CarricoJason CastroDavid CookChikezie EzeDavid HernandezMichael JohnsLuke MenardDanny NoriegaJason YeagerKristy Lee CookAsia'H EppersonAlexandrea LushingtonKady MalloyRamiele MalubaySyesha MercadoAmanda OvermyerCarly SmithsonAlaina WhitakerBrooke White


Just like when you're in school, I'm going to break down the different parts of the American Idol experience into various "Subjects" and grade them on an A, B, C, D, F scale. Then, when we're done with that we'll compile the totals and come up with the GPA for this year. The "Subjects" themselves have been sorted alphabetically, so don't read any more into it than that ... yes, I'm talking to you!

AUDITION ROUNDS

Renaldo LapuzOnce again, the Idol folks just didn't get it. For example, remember how irritated we were that 44-year old Renaldo Lapuz got so much air time during the finale, in fact becoming a huge reason why the announcement of the winner happened after most DVRs stopped recording (mine literally stopped after Ryan said "The winner of American Idol 2008 is David--" which was hilarious, but I was smart enough to record the news that came on after it). Do you remember that he also got eleven minutes of time on the second night of auditions. All of this for a guy who's clearly over the age limit and is nothing more than a novelty joke.

Overall, the audition rounds were improved over the previous season by not focusing almost exclusively on the bad auditioners. There was a good balance between the good and the bad, but after a pair of two hour shows to open the season we had another two and a half weeks and six more episodes to slog through before we even got to Hollywood! Nine hours of this round is just way too much. The other problem is that some cities just didn't give us much of the goods, and in those cases they probably shouldn't even get a full hour.

There were some course corrections throughout the seven episodes, as about halfway through they stopped spending so much time on back-stories of the contestants, good and bad, and started giving us even more moments of good singing. If that course correction continues into next year, then maybe they can make these rounds more balanced and entertaining. Just cut them to three weeks maximum!

GRADE: C
(for improving the quantity of good singers we see, but still too many episodes)


CONTESTANTS

Carly Hennessy-SmithsonWell, we were promised a deeper talent pool than ever before and in large part they delivered but they did so by cheating. A few years back, it became status quo for Survivor to go recruiting models and actors in and around LA so that they could be ensured a certain quantity of "pretty" people on the show. The first season they went overboard and got a ton of people who just didn't get it and had never seen the show. They were just there for the exposure for their careers. It pretty much sucked.

This year, we had something simliar. But rather than go for "pretty" the Idol folks went with established talent. Carly Smithson is the most blatant of these having recorded a major album, chummed it up with celebrities and gotten her two million shot at fame. Yes, she got royally screwed over, but I want my American Idol to be about first chances and not second chances.

The reason that we can get excited about contestants who come from nowhere onto the Idol stage is because we can almost relate to them. "Hey!" we can say, "I'm a bartender, too." But how many of us can say we've recorded a major studio album, recorded a big budget video and released singles for radio airplay? I'm not saying these people might not deserve a second chance, but the Idol stage shouldn't be where that happens. And by giving us so many of this, the producers gave us the promised increase in talent, but at the cost of a lot of the show's innocence.

GRADE: B (for delivering a stronger talent pool, but tainted with singers from too "professional" pasts for my taste)


HOLLYWOOD WEEK

American Idol 7 - Hollywood WeekAfter eight episodes in the initial audition rounds totaling ten hours of coverage, we got one two-hour episode in Hollywood. That was followed by the infamous "chair" episode in which the Top 24 are finally revealed. Don't get me wrong, as empty as it is, I kind of like the "chair" episodes. But I'd like to see some more time spent in Hollywood. Especially considering that this is entirely taped and clipped before the season begins to air, there's no reason we couldn't get at least two or three episodes out of this. And somewhere through that actually see all of the contestants.

This season, when the Top 24 were revealed, there were four or five contestants who made the Top 24 and yet got zero screen time prior to our seeing them in the "chair" episode. I think this is inexcusably unfair. When Renaldo Lapuz gets eleven minutes of screen time, and countless other rejects get tons more screen time, you can spare a minute or three to show us at least once each of the Top 24 contestants.

As for Hollywood Week itself, Idol eliminated the hideously awkward group numbers. These never made any sense, except maybe as time savers, as it is never part of the competition to sing in groups (except for the group numbers on Results Shows which we'll get to later). Even better is that every contestant gets at least two chances to prove they belong in the competition. Round One you either go straight to Round Three or you suck and have to come back and prove yourself again in Round Two. Round Two is back to basics as they come out in groups of ten and perform a quick a capella piece.

All in all, the changes made in Hollywood were good, but shouldn't have been packed into two hours of television. We got hardly any behind-the-scenes drama and shenanigans as compared to previous season, which is part of what humanizes these kids and makes us care about them.

GRADE: B (for cramming it all into one episode and not even showing us the entire Top 24)


INTERVIEWS / BEHIND-THE-SCENES

American Idol 7 - Behind the ScenesThere isn't as much to say about this, except that this "Subject" is brought to you by Coca-Cola and you can download the full studio recording of it from iTunes after the show. There was a time early in the show's run where we'd get video snippets of the kids hanging out at the mansion they lived in, goofing off in the pool or playing games. They had pointless little gags and general silliness. All of this showed personality.

Now we get scripted interviews sponsored by Coca-Cola and Ford commercials. Yes, we get the pre-song interviews but those are generally short and too specific to the song. And if we ever do go behind-the-scenes with the kids we get to see them go to a movie opening so that we can hype that movie, or go to another event Idol wants to promote. We can't just see them hanging out or going bowling because that bowling alley isn't going to spend a million dollars on the show for the free plug. Or we get the likes of Mike Meyers or Jim Carrey acting silly to promote their new movies.

By being so driven by the corporate dollar, Idol is going the way of professional sports. Everything is sponsored and thus even the "spontaneous" moments caught on film have to have a corporate agenda or promote a sponsor's product. So rather than have the kids acting naturally so we can get a better sense of who they are, we get them forced into unnatural situations.

GRADE: D (for giving into corporate greed and sacrificing true intimate moments with the contestants)


JUDGES


Randy JacksonI've read recently (sorry I can't find the link) that after the second season, Simon admitted that the judges were trying to skew their comments to push Ruben into the finals over Kimberly Locke, who they believed was outperforming him. But they wanted a Clay-Ruben finale so they were disingenuous to both Kimberly and Ruben in their comments to try and manipulate the audience. Hey, that's television and we can tell if we're not stupid that the judges have favorites and maybe even have their own agenda.

But this year, that reached a fever pitch, particularly with Randy Jackson in regards to David Archuleta. Week after week, Randy gave David overwhelming praise for every performance regardless of how good or not-so-good it was. If Archie was off-key in places or even forgot words, Randy said he was amazing and could sing the phone book. If Syesha was a little flat, he nailed her to the wall. If Archie tripped on the stairs and fell off the stage before singing a single note Randy would have said he was amazing and could sing the phone book. Simply put, he went above and beyond in his praise of Archuleta to the point of losing credibility completely. David was good, yes. He was amazing at times. But he was not perfect every single time. He knows that and so do you, Randy.

GRADE: D (for the complete and total lack of honest criticism throughout the season)


MENTORS

American Idol 7 - Top 6 w/ Andrew Lloyd WebberThis year, there was a tremendous improvement in the quality and quantity of mentors. After going completely overboard last year with mentors, we got a drastically reduced number of them throughout the season. And with the addition of Mariah Carey to the mix, we got a mentor who was relevant in modern music, as well as a legend in her own right. Furthermore, for the most part the mentors this year were much more constructive and valuable as teachers to the contestants than some of the cheerleaders of the past; Andrew Lloyd Webber was particularly affective. And they stayed off the judging panel during the performance shows.

On the negative side, they shouldn't have clustered all the mentors back-to-back they did, nor should they have waited so long into the competition to start using them. And the fault for this decision goes largely with the themes they used in conjunction with the mentors, which we'll get to next. Over all, the use of mentors was vastly improved this year, and the problems surrounding them wasn't necessarily their fault.

GRADE: B (if only because they were used too many in a row and too much toward the end)


THEMES

American Idol 7 - Top 9 w/ Dolly PartonThis was far and away the worst season yet in regards to the themes. The first mistake was starting with them right off with the Top 24. First of all, we don't know a damned thing about any of these kids. We don't know what kind of musicians they think they are nor do we know what kind of music they like to play. Then to make it worse, the first week's themes are the '60s, '70s and '80s, respectively. So now not only will we not get to see who these kids are as performers in their own style, we have to see them performing songs they've possibly never even heard of before.

Particularly in the first week it was ridiculously unfair to force such a dated theme. These songs are fifty to sixty years old and as was proven, the kids just aren't familiar with them. I don't mind the theme, it's certainly better than some of the others, but it should not have been first, nor should it have been followed up by the subsequent decades like that. In fact, until we get to the Top 12 there should be no themes at all. Once we find the better half of them, then we can start putting them through singing hoops to see what mettle they have.

The second major problem was the mentor themes. There is no reason that the theme for Neil Diamond week should be Neil Diamond, or Dolly Parton or Mariah Carey or even Andrew Lloyd Webber for his week. These mentors will not be insulted if you ask them to mentor a wider genre that they're a part of. It's worked in the past. Put these weeks in with two weeks of The Beatles and you have more than five weeks where the contestants essentially had one artist to choose from and an extremely limited list of songs to choose from. It's ridiculously and unfairly restrictive.

GRADE: F (for too many themes and way too restrictive themes)


RESULTS SHOW


Natasha BedingfieldI can't really fault American Idol for the bloated results show as it is was mostly done in response to the WGA Strike in late 2007. The problem is that by maintaining it all season, it made for a very long time to wait for a simple yes or no. Ryan got to the point where he had to have the kids walk on stage one at a time to fill time. They also turned it into a variety show format with completely irrelevant guest performers at times. I'm sure it was more money for the Idol machine, but it was just diluting the point of the show and creating more distractions.

I did like the features wherein we checked in with former contestants, and appreciated when those contestants came on to perform their latest track. Idol promoting former winners makes sense. The likes of Maroon 5, Leona Lewis, The Clark Brothers and Natasha Bedingfield not so much. I can handle former contestants and mentors singing on the results show, but beyond that it's just more filler that irritates us all. Finally, I will go on the record as saying that there is not a single redeeming quality to the live call-in feature. It was painfully awkward to watch every time it happened and it needs to just go away.

GRADE: B (because it's not so much their fault they were an hour, but the live call-in segment and pointless guests were their fault)


FINAL REPORT CARD
C - Audition Rounds
B - Contestants
B - Hollywood Week
D - Interviews / Behind-the-Scenes
D - Judges
B - Mentors
F - Themes
B - Results Show

C - (2.0) Grade Point Average

Wow, this turned out to be a pretty harsh report card. I do love the show, but clearly, I see room for improvements in the "Subjects" of the initial audition rounds, the behind-the-scenes coverage, the judges and the way themes are handled. Are my marks too low?

How would you grade American Idol 7
A71 (14.7%)
B172 (35.5%)
C144 (29.8%)
D65 (13.4%)
F32 (6.6%)

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