With Idol‘s Jan. 18 premiere just a week away, it remains to be seen whether America is in it to win it or if we’re way too fatigued to give a damn. In a year saturated with major-network musical competition series — fall 2011 brought The X Factor and The Sing-Off; season 2 of NBC’s The Voice premieres post-Super Bowl on Feb. 5 — can Fox’s long-running behemoth inspire the same weekly devotion it always has? I say yes!
It’s been nearly eight months since American Idol winner Scotty McCreery baby-locked-them-doors and gargled his way through a victory lap in a confetti downpour. Season 10 went well. Everyone thought the ratings would go down with the loss of Simon Cowell and introduction of Jennifer Lopez and your batty uncle Steven Tyler, but the show defied expectations, winning the youth demo by far each week and gaining in total viewership for the first time since 2007. TV’s reality-singing standard didn’t falter even in the face of February’s successful debut of The Voice — a fresh, new, and much different series on a competing network. What we learned: Idol‘s not a crapshoot; it’s a fixture. We can rely on it. (At this point we rely on Ryan Seacrest for pretty much everything.)
Last season was my first recapping American Idol for EW.com, so I watched it “a million bazillion percent” (– Randy Jackson) more intently than I had in the past. I was more enamored by and hopeful for the contestants, more critical of the judges and their outfits, and constantly mining the stage for unsung heroes/hidden gems. So if Idol had changed, it’s possible I didn’t notice the subtle shifts precisely because my approach to watching it had also changed.
That said — was last year’s sing-athon really much different than it had been from 2002-2010? The audition rounds made us sob; our host was comfortingly Seacresty. Randy returned as the constant gardener, watering down and serving up different verbal combo platters of the same seven sentences he’s grown accustomed to saying on TV. The biggest difference from olden times was that there wasn’t a cranky British man yelling at everyone. I suppose the atmosphere was all-around friendlier, but as the season progressed, the judges’ affability grew monotonous — and later, when they inexplicably shut down talented third-place growler Haley Reinhart, infuriating.
So it seems people like to watch American Idol no matter what. I know I’d rather like it than dislike it, but either way I’m watching. I’ve missed the earnestness and singularity of Fox’s five-month quest for a viable solo artist. Just as Simon promised, The X Factor was not American Idol. It was American Idol on steroids, a flashy, disingenuous snow globe with a backup dancer inside, read straight from a script.
I, for one, am still hungry. My guess is that 2011-12’s glut of musical competition series will not curb people’s appetite for tried-and-true comfort food. We’ll have our Idol and eat our Voice cake, too. Simon Cowell’s autumnal laser light show was merely a distracting Pumpkin Soup with Jambon that we soon discovered had actually been made with SPAM. It’s time for the main course. Bring on the truffled mac and cheese from Randy’s garden.