Illustration by Sean McCabe
May 23, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

We have arrived at a point where American Idol isn’t merely the most popular show on television — it’s the most commonly consumed chunk of bittersweet pop culture in the nation. And like a lot of what we chew over, it can go down easy or make you gag. We all know the recipe for this remarkably sturdy soufflé: Take a few weeks of traveling the country shopping for contestants — mostly unappetizing, sometimes revolting, occasionally scrumptious. Narrow the ingredients to 12; shake them up by having them sing everything from Cole Porter to Queen; stir in the peppery, salty comments from a trio of critic-judges who behave like temperamental chefs. Place the results under hot lights and let ’em bake until America selects its favorite flavor. If Don McLean and Jason Biggs hadn’t gotten to it first, its British importers could have called the result American Pie: It’s warm, it’s patriotic, and it smacks you in the face with either its brilliance or its unexpected shock.

On May 10, shock prevailed when ”rocker dad” Chris Daughtry was voted off Idol. In a masterstroke of understatement on a show that prizes bombastic excess above all, host Ryan Seacrest tossed off Daughtry’s ejection as the second half of a run-on sentence that began with, ”A lot of people predicted, Chris, that you could be the next American Idol” and ended abruptly with, ”Chris, you are going home tonight.” It was a jaw-dropper from a series whose immense success — averaging 30 million viewers for both nights and hitting over 47 million voter calls two weeks ago — depends upon contrasting, contradictory elements. To take just a few:

It’s Fluff/It’s Therapeutic
Paul Weitz, writer-director of the recent, underrated movie spoof American Dreamz, said that the idea for combining an Idol-like contest with a George Bush-like president as guest judge came to him as he was spending his days stressing out over news about terrorism and his nights vegging out in front of the TV. Multimillions of folks probably approach Idol the same way. Its success suggests that, right now, we want less TV ”ripped from the headlines” (sorry, Law & Order and bird-flu TV movies) and more entertainment that transports us to an alternate universe (also, by the way, the answer to the pop-quiz question, ”How is Idol like Lost?”).

We can also remain pleasantly detached: It’s fun to get worked up over the competition, knowing that the bottom line isn’t anything as drastic as war or suffering, but a record contract and a concert tour.

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