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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Elaine

and could we please allow at least the top ten to sing whole songs? if they want to keep our three stooges (er..judges) then send them back to school. they forgot a thing or two about constuctive criticism.

May 29 2008 at 9:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lyoness

Great article. Way to many plants tis season. Good grief if the contestants already have a failed cd or 2 what makes AI believe they will catch on now? Geeeeze Only Jason and Rami were true amateurs.

Themes, dang they started themes right out of the gate and never gave the Idols a chance to showcase who they are. Instead they force the contestants immediately. My favorite songs and performances on AI always came when the contestants are free to showcase who they are.

Syesha was not thrown under the bus anywhere near as much as Jason Castro. This kid gave 2 of the best performances this season possibly any season. Singing a year and that talented WOW.

In spite of the insane Archie pimping, America got it RIGHT!! Cook will be the first successful male winner. Look at his Itune sales. But I would have preferred a Cook-Castro finale.

Lastly No more Broadway themes. For years AI bashes contestants by calling them too broadway but ends up having a Broadway theme.

May 28 2008 at 9:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cathy Mathews

I'd rather they go back to non-theme weeks for the semis. That's the only chance the contestants get to convey who they are as musicians.
Something I'd like to see but will never happen: the judges' deliberation (with producers' notes) on selecting the final 24. I'd like to know just what factors into those selections.
That would help extend Hollywood week -- I agree I'd like to see more of the prep and drama during that week.
I think they're saving the mentors for later so that they don't have to mentor as many contestants!!
I think the producers are so concerned with iTunes sales now that it's really limited what the contestants can sing on the show. It's all about selling the songs and making a buck, rather than opening up the repertoire.
I like seeing Idol alumni on the show more than just Top 40 artists (could they just bring back Elliott every week? I LOVE him!! LOL).
Finally, if they want to pull in a younger demographic, they have got to feature more current music to perform, even if means spending more for clearances. Older teens and twenty-somethings aren't interested in heary musty oldies week after week. I think this would be much more effective than lowering the eligibility age to 14, as Simon suggested (that would NOT attract the twenty-somethings).

May 28 2008 at 12:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emily

I gave this AI a D. D as in Dreadfully Dull. All that talent and it was soooooo boring.

I agree whole heartedly with Jason and didn't like the fact that they planted 2 etablished singers: Carly Hennessy Smithson (MCA Record Ultimate High released in 2001) and David Archuleta (Star Search 2 Junior Vocalist winner). If the producers want to play that game then they need to stop with the cattle calls that have young people waiting for hours on end just to be told no. They didn't have a chance to begin with - the top 24 have been picked way in advance of the judges ever seeing them.

The following should never be allowed to be covered again on AI: Bohemian Rhapsody, Alone, Over the Rainbow. I'm just over hearing these again.

Here's just a random thought. Maybe someone could prep the judges and give them samples of some of the newer covers of the songs the contestants sing. (It will be another chance to pimp the Itunes, too.)That way they won't mistake a copy of a newer cover as original. I'm also still reeling that Simon said he never heard "Magic Man" before.

Cut the auditions big time, expand Hollywood week and don't insert ringers. That's my suggestion for a better AI.

May 28 2008 at 11:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brenda

I agree with a lot of what you said in your article except for one thing.I really like Renaldo Lopez; as do a lot of other people. Him being featured was very similar to Michael Sandeki being featured last year. It gives these people who would not normally get it, 5 minutes of fame. Yes Idol needs to improve and I would Love to see more of Hollywood week.Thanks for an article different then others being written.

May 27 2008 at 6:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chart

You nail Randy on pimping David A, but what about Simon almost tripping over himself as he pushed David C. Talk about rigged.... besides the games the producers played handcuffing David A with limited songs and songs that couldn't get approved, the worst display of manipulation was Simon making the media rounds the 2 days before finals and not only pimping David C, but bashing David A. This is just poor taste. No longer a contest... just a marketing vehicle.

May 27 2008 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chart's comment
Barry Wilhelm

Please. You're just coming across as a bitter David A fan. Simon couldn't possibly have been more anti-David C when judging the finale.

And David C didn't have limited song choices??? He was as handcuffed as David A and yet by sheer talent found a way to overcome it.

Bitter, bitter, bitter...

May 27 2008 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
theatr

I would give the contestants an A just for losing the vote-my-number finger wiggle that they used to do at the end of each song in the previous seasons.

Some of them still did it at the beginning of this season but then it stopped miraculously. Someone must have told them that it just looks silly.

May 27 2008 at 3:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Matt

I'm a huge fan of this show....HUGE! I'm also hugely disgrunteld with it, and have been for quite some time.

At the very least, I hope that because TV Squad is a part of AOL, that somehow this will get further than most fan blogs who seem to be so unconstructive and ineffective. If the producers changed the show per your comments, it'd be a great start.

I think the problem is that we don't know these people. Idol even admitted that it was a problem that they were trying to reconcile, but I don't think they came close to doing it this season. They should tailor the audition weeks around the top 48, making sure that we have seen the top 24. Maybe we spend 5 minutes before their auditions with all 48, then see the auditions. Maybe each city has a "worst of the city" and they show that at the end of every episode, perhaps they have an hour-long special for all the bad auditioners, since somehow, people still like that.

They need to use the audition episodes to further tell the stories of the top 24 so the viewer feels like they grew alongside them.

Theme weeks need to end completely. I like your suggestion of broadening the material contestants can choose from when there are guests. Dolly week could be country, Mariah could be pop, etc. The 60s, 70s, 80s, is bull, doesn't show much, kills the possibilities for some of the contestants, and I'd totally rather see that contestant do what they want to do so I can grow closer to them.

I'm surprised you didn't catch the corporatization of the weekly guests with Andrew Lloyd Weber. Weber is currently developing a new musical, which he hasn't had a new musical for quite some time. If it fails on Broadway it could be between $70-100 million loss. If it's made into a movie, it could gross $300 million in the US alone. Fox wouldn't give Andrew Lloyd Weber so much face time (I mean, seriously, what was the point in having him there for the finale pt1?), if it wasn't for the fact that they're protecting their interests. He's almost too irrelevant to most of the demographic to get so much face time, unless there's a bigger machine behind it.

I'd definately give it a D.

May 27 2008 at 3:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
brian

I didn't see you mention it, but the two weeks of Beatles songs was (most likely) to promote the fact that Beatles songs were now available on iTunes, much like American Idol.

May 27 2008 at 3:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kim

I agree with most of your review but I would still rate this the best year of AI that I have seen with Season 5 a close second. Was it perfect? No, but then it never is. I would rather listen and watch singers with talent then worry too much about their professional credentials. After all, none of them acheived any kind of fame. Carly was sixteen at the time of her "big break" and I think she had no sense of what kind of an artist she wanted to be.

After last year's awful top 12, I almost stopped watching AI for good. I'm glad I didn't.

Here's hoping that the AI producers read your comments because many of them are very valid. Thanks for your reviews this season. I have enjoyed them all!

May 27 2008 at 2:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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