On paper, AMC's new reality show is fabulous. Each week for eight weeks, "Showville," which is set to premiere Thursday night at 9 p.m., will take us to a small town where talent coaches Alec Mapa and Lisette Bustamante will select four locals to put on a talent show; the remaining residents will vote on a winner.
You can practically hear how it was pitched: "Waiting for Guffman" meets "American Idol" with a little "Stephen Fry in America" thrown in.
Unfortunately, television is not a paper medium and, based on the first episode, "Showville" is a mess, unwilling to commit to being one sort of show or another.
Yes, it is fun and informative to travel flyover territory -- first stop Holland, Mich.! -- tour the quaint main streets, examine the local export (not surprisingly, many wooden shoes) and meet some real folks with talent.
Certainly Mapa, with his purple specs, and Bustamante slide easily into the city-mice-meet-country-mice motif while maintaining an admirable respectfulness. In other hands, on other networks (I'm talking to you, Bravo), "Showville" would have quickly turned into a tear-down of everyone who doesn't choose to live in New York or L.A., i.e. most of the American citizenry. Here it is a celebration of the many forms and origin of artistry.
But there's simply too much to do and too little time to do it. In the confines of an hour, the show must: capture the charm of its locale, run through early auditions, record the reaction of the four finalists, follow them through Mapa- and Bustamante-led tutorials, evoke the jittery glory of opening night, show the final acts, chronicle the voting process and proclaim a winner. Oh, and highlight the banter and reactions of the two hosts to provide episodic continuity.
The first episode does accomplish these things -- it just doesn't do any of them particularly well, mainly because it is still trying to have "American Idol" overtones even as "Idol" ratings free fall.
"Showville" is strongest when it focuses on the participants, capturing the quiet but still passionate dreams of ordinary people, which are precisely what has fueled the popularity of the bigger talent competitions.
With a shorter to-do list and more ruthless editing -- far too much time is spent in close-ups on the hosts -- "Showville" could be as good in fact as it is in theory.