This season, American Idol is attempting to change things up. The series brought in brand new judge Harry Connick, Jr. to bring some toughness back to the judging panel (let's not kid ourselves into thinking that Randy Jackson was tough and not just sick and tired). They've made tweaks here and there in the rigid Idol format. But worst of all, they've made Idol mean. And considering the effort the show has gone through to ensure that no more William Hung-level contestants are humiliated on national television by all but eliminating the bad audition reels in the season's first few episodes, this mean streak comes as a bit of shock.
First, we saw inklings of this new style when Idol asked 50 Hollywood ticket recipients to fly to Los Angeles, pile up in a daunting airplane hangar and re-audition for their chance to stay. The losers were placed on a bus and not told of their fate — the silver LAX airport beacon was their only harbinger of doom. Now, in the portion of the process in which singers get their big moment on stage with the band before learning their fate, mano a panel of three, Idol threw its contestants and viewers a curve ball.
Singers Jesse Roach and Jessica Meuse — two young ladies primed to fill the "alternative rocker" slot in Idol's usual line-up — are brought in together and asked to sing A Capella to win the spot. They each sing their bars, neither of them really wowing anyone because they'd just entered the most nerve-wracking situation conceivable only to see it escalate. Then, the judges send the women off to a dark corner so they can deliberate. When it's all said and done, the middle of the episode enjoyed a drama spike and Meuse won the spot, but was it worth making these two young women re-audition after they'd worked so hard? Could the judges really not remember who they wanted to go through?
Maybe, but I call bullshit. Idol is doing everything it can this season to make sure we know things are dramatic and different and cut-throat. While Idol usually has its little dramatic intros complete with Word Art and sonic thuds, this week, the episode opened with Harry Connick, Jr. telling contestants to stop making excuses when they performed — "Don't tell us you're sick, because then that's all we'll be thinking about." Sure, his advice was direct, but it was constructive and helpful. Still, Idol swathed a marquis across the screen that read "No more Mr. Nice Guy." Clearly, Idol is manufacturing drama for drama's sake. Connick is tougher than past judges, but he's certainly not a dark cloud over the competition the way Simon Cowell once was.
Perhaps the people at Idol think if contestants are treated like puppets made to dance for our delight and if Connick is the villain, the hordes of viewers Idol once enjoyed will return. But here's the thing: We've been around the block enough to know when Idol is reaching into its bag of tricks and when the drama is real. And all this faux-drama is not only cruel to the contestants, it's just plain insulting to the viewers.
Get it together, Idol.