Sunday, January 27, 2008

American Idol Season 7 — Hey, It’s Not Half Bad!

Fellow superfans, say it with me… phew.

Our beloved teevee obsession is back, and in fine form.

Two weeks into “American Idol” Season 7, I can confidently say, so far, so good. The first few episodes have provided an excellent start to this year’s competition. We’ve been presented with interesting contestant backstories, and been given just the right amount of wackjob screen time — enough to provide a few laughs, but not so much that it turns into a depressing parade of the bizarre. Plus, as a bonus, we’ve been blessed with a generally coherent Paula. Not to mention something which was sorely lacking during last year’s competition — contestants who can actually sing. What a concept!

Looking back on Season 6, which, to summarize briefly, went against all that is right and good in this world, it’s clear that this year, “Idol” has to prove itself worthy of our devotion once again. All season long, we suffered through the show’s misguided focus on past-their-prime celebrity guests, and a top 24 who paled so dramatically to their predecessors, it seemed they had been secretly selected by a tone deaf production assistant during an extra-long Simon Cowell cigarette break.

And it’s not simply the spectre of Sanjaya and company — the “Idol” franchise has disappointed fans in another way. In the wake of past winners and runners-up being dropped from their record contracts faster than Haley Scarnato can spot the shortest skirt on a wardrobe rack, the entire foundation of the show seems to be in question. “American Idol” is supposed to produce, you know, “idols.” Yes, it’s unrealistic to assume that every winner is going to enjoy Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood-type success. But many fans find it unsettling that contestants who earn enough viewer support to reach the finals don’t in turn receive the backing of the “Idol” machine for very long once their respective season ends. It begs the question, if this is how it’s going to be, why should we care? Why should we get emotionally invested in the competition? Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee were in the “Idol” spotlight just two short seasons ago — and they’ve already lost their record deals. It’s this sort of thing that makes me question my admittedly unhealthy dedication to the show. Of course, I won’t deny that upon initially hearing the news, the Elliott Yamin loyalist in me had to stifle a mocking, Nelson from “The Simpsons” laugh. I refrained, because I like Taylor. (No comment on McPhee.)

Given all this, it’s comforting that Season 7 is off to such a strong start. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of times I’ve blurted out “Nice voice!” or “Very good!” or “Why would anyone go on that lie detector show?” during the audition rounds thus far. This year’s crop of contestants seems very promising. What’s more, in addition to the core competency of actually being able to sing, many of them have touching personal stories. Who could resist the adorable little boy who overcame a paralyzed vocal chord to make it through to Hollywood? Or the pretty Irish tattoo artist who had her “Idol” dream quashed a few years ago when her visa was denied, only to come back this year and successfully earn a second chance? This is the stuff of “Idol” gold.

And the auditions featured just for laughs have, for the most part, been entertaining. I’ll be hard-pressed to forget the long-haired gentleman with the fans and the fingernails, and the “You are my brother” guy — although the latter’s segment went on for a bit too long. My one concern is that Simon seems to have gotten in touch with his softer side during the off-season. I don’t think I can handle him telling one more person “I like you,” or calling another female contestant “Sweetheart.” It seems unnatural.

Overall though, I’m feeling quite good about the prospects for the new “Idol” season. So good, I dare say it’s appropriate to quote the aforementioned Mr. Hicks: