American Idle 

Why American Idol worked on TV, but not in person.

I'm not proud of it. Then again, I'd been diligently watching the show, charting the weekly progress of the pop-stardom-seekers-turned-celebrities. It seemed silly to miss out on what might be the culmination of their fleeting fame -- the American Idols concert tour. But what I didn't understand until I was actually sitting there in Sacramento's ARCO Arena, surrounded by screaming slumber-party-sized groupies and their moms, was that reality TV was a phenomenon better appreciated on TV than in reality. Without a homemade "I XOXO you, Justin!" poster, I felt out of place.

Fox's American Idol was television's surprise hit of 2002, though no one's really sure why. The show began with a panel of judges narrowing down a field of thousands of Idol hopefuls from throughout the country to a manageable thirty. Viewers then phoned in to pick the final field of ten, who competed by singing clichéd covers in front of live audiences. On the final episode, 22.8 million viewers tuned in as girl-next-door Kelly Clarkson beat out onetime front-runner Justin Guarini for the grand prize. It wasn't high quality, but no one seemed to care. The ratings increased with almost every episode.

So what made American Idol this year's reality sensation? Why did America find itself hopelessly invested week after week, casting one hundred million votes to keep its favorites on the show and boot the losers? Was it because of Simon Cowell, the brutally frank judge the audience loved to hate? Was it the Motown song selection, or the unpredictability of live television? Did people project their childhood pipe dreams onto the idol hopefuls? "You never really know if a show will be a hit," offers Fox publicist Jason Clark. "You don't know what makes some shows popular and others not."

But timing is everything, and American Idol was perfectly timed to fit into television's current obsession with so-called reality. It's a path we've been on ever since the PBS series An American Family documented the all-too-real disintegration of the Loud family way back in 1973. It was the cinema vérité of TV -- no script, no retakes, just your average dysfunctional family recorded on film. Almost twenty years later, MTV experimented with its own Real World brand of reality by sticking some kids together in a New York apartment, hoping to "create" compelling drama. Then came Road Rules, Survivor, The Bachelor, and all the rest, all touted for their "reality," even as many were increasingly contrived. Following the grand American tradition of pro wrestling and Jerry Springer, we've become a nation of viewers that likes its fiction real and its "reality" fake. We're forced to turn to ER or The Sopranos for a dose of authenticity.

American Idol brought reality programming to a whole new level of unreality. The dreams of Idol contestants were real enough, but the show's prerehearsed interviews, the shameless product placement, the seemingly scripted banter, and the infighting between "good" and "bad" judges that furtively manipulated viewers' votes, conspired to make the show's competition exciting and painful, yet all the more false. This is not to say the outcome was fixed. The contestants really could sing, their anxiety and desire to win were palpable, and yes, our votes did count. Aired live, the show offered viewers the feeling that anything could happen. Contestants who failed to perform well suffered almost immediate repercussions, getting kicked off the show the very next night. But the show artificially "created" America's next pop star -- its ability to do so was, in fact, its very premise. The fact that Kelly's single sold more copies than any new release for the past three years proves that Americans are sometimes happier with a manufactured sensation than an organic one.

Which perhaps should have been a warning against the perils of seeing the Idols perform live. In concert, there was no competition, no excitement. Instead, we got exploding flames, poorly choreographed group numbers, and a chance to watch each of the Idols repeat songs we'd already heard. Given the high preteen attendance at the show, adult fans apparently understood this distinction. Prescient tour organizers wisely chose suburban venues for the two Northern California appearances.

Popular TV, it turns out, depends on the impenetrable distance created by the Panasonic proscenium, the fourth wall, if you will, of glass and circuitry that can make even the most banal, god-awful entertainment seem somehow irresistible. Live performance requires a suspension of disbelief that is not easily achieved by amateurs. With TV, we can sit back, get sucked in, grab a soda from the fridge, cry, change channels, scream invectives at the characters we loathe, and wax ironical with friends about a show's amusing shortcomings. And sometimes the best shows, like American Idol, give viewers the chance to do all of the above.


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