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When pop culture historians talk about the definitive programs in American television, certain shows almost always end up on the list: MASH, 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 Season16—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 even Randy Jackson is gone. Gone even is the show’s original network: After a two-year hiatus, Idol has left the confines of Fox and found a new home on ABC—along with a new-look panel with Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie sitting in as this season’s judges. Seacrest is the only familiar face left.
ABC hopes the addition of these iconic performers will re-energize and rejuvenate the franchise, as well as enhancing musical credibility and clout. Many longtime Idol fans still aren’t entirely convinced, what with the mere 10.3 million views of the season premiere.
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.
American Idol auditions are always filled with all sorts of crazy twists and turns. Some contestants brings us to tears or make us cover our ears. Some share heartfelt stories, while others just don’t know when to stop talking. But this season’s premiere is a bit different. Filming is more intimate, comments are soft and contestants aren’t too wild—well, at least not yet. Even Carrie Underwood makes a (vocal) appearance as she narrates this season’s kick-off, telling us that music is universal, uniting and unparalleled in its influence.
And then some of the wild begins. A boy who has never been kissed before (and who works as a cashier to try and get girls) is kissed by Katy Perry—who is awfully flirtatious with contestants and the judging panel. Katy jokes about talking “to her psychic” and doing yoga. A girl mentions that she has “a girl crush” on Katy. The panel encourages a young man to kiss many girls, and boys. A girl smells her armpit. Someone jokes about vomiting. A hungover male wannabe rock star burps repeatedly, wears makeup and carelessly disregards the judging panel. Luke Bryan wants to “chug a lot of beer” with a contestant. A man refers to himself as “a male Beyoncé.” Contestants share stories of abusive fathers, divorced parents, murdered parents and living with their significant others.
Contestants and judges use harsh language, sometimes in the context of song lyrics. God’s name is misused three times. “D–n” is heard three times. “H—,” is used twice and “a–” is heard once. The f-word is bleeped out once.
We hear references to drinking and fecal matter. Katy makes a joking reference to testicles. Girls, including Perry, wear short dresses and reveal cleavage and stomachs.
“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.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
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