When pop culture historians talk about the definitive programs in American television, certain shows almost always end up on the list: M*A*S*H, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, The Cosby Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family. And in terms of sheer longevity, Gunsmoke and The Simpsons get the nod for their 20- and 22-year runs, respectively (and still counting for Homer and Co.) These are programs that not only enjoyed long runs and huge audiences, but shaped Americans' attitudes even as they shaped the medium of television itself.
Add one more to the list: American Idol. In 2007, then-NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said of the talent show's colossal audience and influence, "I think Idol is the most impactful show in the history of television."
For most of Idol's first nine seasons (Season 1, in 2002, being the lone exception) it's been a ratings juggernaut that's crushed all competition with merciless consistency. Credit for that success no doubt goes in part to its populist premise: Singer wannabes of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and talent levels step up to the mike each week in a quest to become a household name. Cattle-call sessions at the beginning of each season give way to a dozen finalists who duke it out until only one remains, based on the popular call-in vote of the audience at home. Some succeed based on their irrepressible talent (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, to name the show's three biggest-sellers), while others "succeed" due to infamously bad performances (William Hung), self-exploiting gimmicks (Katrina "Bikini Girl" Darrell) or simply because of their outrageous hairdos (Sanjaya Malakar).
Talent and performing theatrics aside, however, much of the show's success undoubtedly grew out of the remarkable, zany and unpredictable interactions of host Ryan Seacrest with the three judges who were Idol's mainstay for the first seven seasons: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. Like the ensemble casts of popular sitcoms such as Seinfeld, Cheers and Friends, these three judges, with Seacrest as the onstage foil, enjoyed a compelling chemistry that was sometimes as interesting—if not more so—than the competition itself.
Cowell's willingness to shred contestants' egos with mean-but-honest assessments contrasted with Paula's "What's she going to say next?" mixture of feel-good affirmation and eye-rolling antics. Loitering somewhere in between was Randy Jackson, the cool "dawg" who was always ready to dish praise when a performer took an old favorite and "made it his own." And up on the stage, Seacrest was never afraid to poke fun at the judges' comments—especially Cowell's. So successful was this template, in fact, that virtually every reality talent competition has copied it—right down to the de rigueur inclusion of an irascible British judge.
But every dynasty must topple, and the writing on the wall began to take form when Idol's ratings started to slip. Songwriter Kara DioGuardi joined the judging panel in Season 8, but average viewership fell to 26 million from a peak of 31 million in Season 5 (the year after Carrie Underwood won). Season 9 saw Paula Abdul making her high-profile exit, replaced by talk show host and Idol überfan Ellen DeGeneres. By many accounts, it was a rude awakening for the comedienne, as her superstardom clashed with Cowell's famously feisty ego. And the ratings continued to drift, down to 24 million viewers on average.
Which brings us to Season 10—and enough changes for Plugged In to craft an entirely new review of the show. Everyone's favorite brutal Brit has left the building. And Idol's producers have launched what amounts to something of a reboot. Randy Jackson returns as the lone original judge. And after much speculation and hullabaloo, the show's makers announced that he would be joined by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and singer/dancer/actress Jennifer Lopez.
Fox hopes the addition of these two iconic performers—whose combined album sales top an eye-popping 205 million—will re-energize and rejuvenate the franchise, as well as enhancing musical credibility and clout. Many longtime Idol commentators weren't convinced when they learned of the lineup. But since the Jan. 19, 2011, premiere, the Cowell-less judging panel has generally come off as Cowell-proof as fans welcome its unique mix of entertainment, affirmation and colorful commentary.
But that's not all that needs to be said about American Idol. I began with a note about how TV can shape culture. And this show has certainly done that, literally rearranging the way shower-stall singers everywhere think about their chances of becoming famous. American Idol lives up to its name, certainly, both reflecting and feeding our modern drive to grab 15 minutes of fame whether we deserve them or not. That's not critiqued or tweaked onscreen. It's accepted and encouraged with the same degree of enthusiasm Seacrest exudes when he invites us to giggle at the travails of those who fall flat on their musical faces.
So it seems that the show has come full circle. It's, oddly, vintage American Idol. Which is to say, a blend of feel-good backstories about singers who make your toes tingle, train-wreck performances that make your hair stand up … and too-dirty-for-Star Search profanities and suggestive remarks.
"New Orleans Auditions"
Tyler cracks an oral sex-themed joke (the key word of which gets bleeped). The s-word is also censored, as is "a‑‑." Perhaps a half-dozen times God's name is misused. Several female contestants wear formfitting outfits. A girl with large lips suggestively implies that perhaps Tyler was an illicit contributor to her lineage. A male contestant removes his shirt to show Lopez his abs—Jackson and Tyler respond in kind. Seacrest exclaims, "Of all the people in there, you got Steven and Randy to take their clothes off?" Two extremely overweight people are shown doing a grinding dance. Voodoo is mentioned in passing.
On the plus side, a frequently bullied 16-year-old contestant says, "I had an epiphany at one point. I finally became comfortable in my own shell, and now it's like if someone doesn't like me, that's cool because I like me. That's all that matters. I wanna send a message to kids and bullies: Be yourself, because there's only one life to live. You should just be happy with yourself, no matter what."
"New Jersey Auditions"
A couple of bleeped f-words, including Tyler's vulgar interjection "f‑‑‑ a duck." Other profanities revolve around an uncensored "what the h‑‑‑?" and exclamations of "oh my god." Tyler quotes a line from Tommy Boy, telling one contestant, "Did you eat paint chips as a child?" Another says he belches when he's nervous (and he does).
Many female singers sport revealing outfits. Tyler says to one scantily clad woman, "I want my underwear back." To another he quips, "Sexy—where is your pitchfork, you little devil?" He tells a 16-year-old that she has "just the right amount showing." One woman has two large silver stars affixed to her bikini top. A video clip from the Jersey shore zooms in on a woman's tiny bikini bottom. Lopez shows some cleavage. There's a montage of Tyler's catcalls. Seacrest comments, "It's hard to turn a rock star into a boy scout."
Feel-good stories include one about a young woman whose father is recovering from throat cancer and another whose beleaguered parents emigrated from Kosovo.