American Idol: The Final Season Begins

Last night, Idol came back for “The Final Season,” a bizarre bid by the once most powerful franchise in the television universe to bring back the masses by playing the nostalgia card that has worked so well for things like Star Wars. But though FOX continues to claim they’re sending out Idol before it really drops, the schedule says otherwise. This is the earliest the show has ever returned to the airwaves. Even during the longest run seasons, the show never came back until at least mid January, and in these last couple of years, with the format shrinking, not until the end of the month. I had wondered if the plan was the stretch the crap out of it, but in fact the show will be even more truncated than ever, with a schedule that sounds based on So You Think You Can Dance‘s summer run, and one that ensures the finale will steer very clear of anything resembling May Sweeps. The show that once dominated May will see the final episode ever air April 7th, suggesting that though FOX has hopes of people tuning in for a trip down memory lane, they’re not about to risk advertiser dollars on it. (Sad trombone.)

That resemblance to the SYTYCD schedule isn’t a fluke. After unceremoniously firing Nigel Lythgoe post Season 12, the show unceremoniously fired the replacement producer of the last two seasons, and brought Lythgoe back for this final spin around the dance floor with the old gray mare. That replacement Per Blankens, had shown a flair for edited episodes, giving a spit and polish to the auditions that Lythgoe never did. But when it comes to casting contestants for he live portions, he seemed to not understand how to recognize who could handle the experience and who could not, which is why the last two seasons have flopped so terribly.

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Lythgoe may have a soft spot for everything that the public has tired of with Idol–the terrible auditions, the mean judges, the celebrity pandering and the obvious framing of the preferred winners and losers. But he has never failed to cast a good Top 24, even if the voting public has foiled his plans. And so he returns for the last year, in hopes that in the midst of all the nostalgia, he can also bring in one last crop of memorable talent to sit in the pantheon by the Kellys, the Carries the Adams, and the Phillips.

Unfortunately, the result was an audition episode that felt like a throwback…but in a bad way. When the videos stopped rolling, Taylor Hicks and Kris Allen were shuffled to the side, and Ryan appeared, far more spit and polished than the surfer boi host he was in Season 1 playing second fiddle to Dunkleman, and the bad contestants started up again in a way we have not been subjected to in the last couple of seasons, it was a shock to the system. The world has moved on from this style of mean reality show. Survivor and survival of the fittest, and let’s laugh at the unfit, is no longer the order of the day. The Voice beats Idols in the ratings (and will be sitting pretty alone in May sweeps this year) precisely because it never allows contestants to scream obscenities at a camera chasing them down a hallway. Everyone who is eliminated thanks everyone for the opportunity like a trained professional. The Great British Bake Off is the UK’s current hit import because of the humane way contestants are treated, and because they are given every opportunity to present their best work. In bringing back Lythgoe for this segment of the show and allowing him to return to the original format, it was a reminder that Idol is ready to be put to rest.

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But no where was that the most obvious than when the Kardashians (who remember are executive produced by Seacrest) crashed the auditions for extra camera time and attention. Kanye, who is a star far too big to be needing the validation of someone like Jennifer Lopez, who discovered after quitting Idol that she had no career without it, auditioned his heart out in a way that only served to remind the public that Idol is looking for a very specific type, one that most actual pop stars of today could not conform to if required. Meanwhile, Kim spent her time doing exactly what she does on all of her reality shows, most of which was both vapid and shameless in turns. If this is Idol’s last gasp for relevance, then it is a show that no longer comprehends what is relevant in this century.

As for the contestants, I counted several who could make a splash here and there, but I was also amused to see how much cross-pollination is coming full circle. In The Voice‘s very early days, they brought in failed Idol contestants like Frenchie to show how much more open minded they were. Tonight, one of the best auditions came from Shelbie Z, who was Team Blake, and lasted deep into the rounds of The Voice only a few cycles ago. Not that Idol acknowledged her recent past on The other Show, calling her “a small town hairdresser.” Hey Idol, I know you might not be able to recognize how the Internet, cell phone pictures and Twitter are relevant in this day and age, but if you can’t pretend like that anymore. it doesn’t work.

Perhaps it will improve when the auditions end? One can only hope.

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