‘American Idol’: Tension has a new name - Idol Gives Back

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Let it never be said the producers of ‘American Idol’ don’t understand the keys to their own appeal. For the Idol Gives Back show they were faced with an impossible task: blending two hours of compassion for the planet’s most wretched and downtrodden with their weekly results exercise in the slow-motion torture of their own contestants. One can imagine the despair the producers felt as they rolled up their sleeves and tried to puzzle out how they would raise concern HIV-ridden African children living 13 to a dirt-walled room and then cut to the real tears as a contestant is sent home.

But in the end, ‘Idol’ managed to have its cake and eat it too and, as usual, eat everyone else’s cake on top of that. By both spooling out the tension and brazenly rewriting the rules in order to grant a week’s amnesty to all contestants, they delivered a huge feel-good happy ending to the event.

The reason the challenge described above seems so impossible is that we mere linear thinking mortals live in a world of concrete boundaries, laws and social regulation. If you are creating an Entertainment Universe in your own image, none of those trivial Earth-bound concerns need weigh you down. Which is to say, if you are an ‘Idol’ producer and the rules of the game stand in the way of entertainment, you change the rules. The only rule that truly need apply is that you must put on a good show, and failure to do that is a capital offense.

Before the show, I spoke to a representative for one of the beneficiary organizations, someone who has been involved in major media charity events in the US for decades. He described how in the past years, what with the war, 9-11, the Asian tsunami and Katrina, the American audience has suffered from mega-disaster fatigue and the impact of old reliable benefit shows has markedly declined. If that is the case, its about time someone turned to the only folks in entertainment who seem to have a consistently successful formula for capture the national attention.


In the end, not only did they manage to create this special event in the middle of the season – an event that both serves its charitable cause and enlarges the show – gives it, dare I say, tints of gravitas. But now the first show in the season’s final stretch takes on double meaning, as we will say goodbye to two contestants next week.

In the Idoldome it was a highly charged scene as emotions veered from pathetic to icy tension. For the special event the house was filled with an inordinate number of men in power suits, causing much hyperventilation among the CBS pages as they struggled to break up the schmooze sessions in the aisles and herd people to their seats. Most notable in the audience, the suit di tutti suits, Mr. Rupert Murdoch himself showed up with wife, family and studio boss Peter Chernin in his court. Murdoch’s group added to the enthralling spectacle of Hollywood’s greatest power players sitting politely as Bill the Warm Up Guy called up audience members to sing and dance to “Rappers Delight” for the crowd.

Watching live, the announcement at the top that this would be the most shocking ‘Idol’ result ever cast a layer of tension over the heartrending appeals, the mostly successful comedy bits and musical numbers. The Six, however, had the painful task of trying to look alternately concerned, amused and awestruck sitting on the benches for two hours as Angel of Death Seacrest flitted in and out of their ken, nonchalantly releasing them one by one from doom “at random” he said, – all the while the “Shocking result” promise hanging in the air above them.

In contrast to earlier weeks, where the group camaraderie seemed to carry the contestants through the results nights, The Six looked truly in pain the entire evening, with minimal banter during the show. The days of foolery are behind them – no one wants to go home anymore.

The long road ahead was only emphasized by the return to the Idoldome of Sanjaya Malakar. From their benches, the contestants in their agony gazed out across the audience as Sanjaya, to all appearances after his week-long press tour the happiest man alive, signed autographs for the kids, and joked around with Simon, Randy and Paula. Looking out at the one who crossed over, some part of The Six must have yearned for defeat’s warm embrace. Their exhausted, yearning look called to mind Zbignew Herbert’s poem, “Elegy of Fortinbras”, - written to Shakespeare’s famed tragic prince by the one who lived to stay on after the curtain fell on Hamlet’s melodrama,

“Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you
had to
and you have peace
The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial”

Post-script: Many are asking how the Celine/Elvis thing looked live in the Idoldome. Sadly, that piece was pre-recorded so we in the Dome watched it on a big TV screen along with everyone else.

(Photo courtesy Fox)