Five ways to tune up ''American Idol'': Its new season took too long to find its groove -- but it's not too late to turn the beat around

By Nancy Miller
March 19, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
American Idol Illustration by John Ueland
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Five ways to tune up ”American Idol”

At the end of the March 10 episode of ”American Idol” — the one where Jon Peter ”The Pen Salesman” Lewis performed the whitest white-boy shuffle since Pee-wee Herman — the cameras panned to Simon Cowell, head buried in his hands. It was the perfect ”America, I feel your pain” moment. Finally, someone on the inside acknowledged what we’d been grumbling about for weeks: Has ”American Idol” lost it?

Let’s be clear here: We’re not talking ratings. Viewership is up 30 percent season-to-date, and ”Idol” is frequently the No. 1 show on TV. As reality TV master Mark Burnett scoffs, ”Why would they want to do anything differently when they have 30 million viewers?” But with all due respect, Mr. ”Survivor,” ”AI” is pumping out pop stars, not Big Macs. Yes, last week’s show was a big improvement over the series so far. (Though we’re skeptical of the judges’ repeated claims that this is ”the best top 12 ever” — c’mon, Leah LaBelle?!) It’s quality, not quantity, that counts in the end. Here’s our five-step program to ensure ”AI” rocks — not schlocks — on.

1. They bang! They blow!
Problem ”AI” has produced exactly one breakout star this season: William ”She Bangs” Hung. It’s no wonder — he’s had more screen time than the final 12 combined (the ”Uncut, Uncensored and Untalented” special episode culminated with Hung’s cheerleader-backed gyrations) and a barrage of Fox promos. Hung landed a $25,000 record deal with Fuse/Koch Records and is prepping a CD and video (and we’re prepping for a headache). ”It’s not just that he’s bad,” insists Fuse president Marc Juris. ”It’s a sincere, honest, humble quality he brings to being bad.”
Solution Sure we love the crud, but let’s see more of the talent.

2. Organized crime
Problem Producers erred when divvying up the 32 singers into four groups. Weeks 1 and 3 were aural pleasure, while week 2 was stacked with, well, remember that karaoke scene from ”Lost in Translation”? So while round 2 winner Matthew Rogers is trading body checks with Ryan Seacrest, more deserving performers are back home singing for an audience of shampoo and soap.
Solution Give us another wild-card round! Bring on Lisa Leuschner!

3. Out of the mouths of babes
Problem ”AI2”’s finalists featured one contestant (Carmen Rasmusen) 18 or under; this year there are five. If the summer’s disturbing ”American Juniors” taught us anything, it’s that America doesn’t like to laugh at (or vote out) youngsters.
Solution Raise ”AI”’s legal singing age to a more mature 20.

4. Arrested character development
Problem This time last year, we were signing petitions to save Frenchie, feeling Ruben’s 205 flava, and plotting an extreme makeover for Clay. So imagine our surprise when La Toya London ascended to the ”AI” stage like a satin-swathed Venus a few weeks back and mesmerized a nation with her rendition of ”All by Myself.” We were all, Who the heck is she? ”It’s like you’ve kept this quiet the entire competition,” said a shocked Simon. She had help. While the producers were compiling Suckapalooza ’04, they let La Toya slide under their radars, too. ”AI” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe counters: ”The same thing happened with Kelly. She popped out of nowhere at nearly the same point in the competition.”
Solution We hardly remember Kelly’s moment like this, but we do know personality is just as important as pipes. Give us the backstory sooner.

5. Are we to blame?
Problem In their defense, ”AI” producers gripe that we’re too fixated on the past. ”It’s selective memory,” sniffs Lythgoe. ”People are comparing the end of the last season — Ruben, Clay, and Kimberley — to the beginning of this season.” Fine, but Simon, Paula, and Randy also bring up ”AI”’s heyday every freakin’ episode.
Solution Let’s put away the ”Measure of a Man” CD and lighten up, dawgs. It’s just a talent show, aiiight?

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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