Culture Clash: New season of ‘Idol’ inspires excitement, nausea

Tim Malcolm and John Meo

Malcolm: Guess what was on television last night?

Meo: (tumbleweed)

Malcolm: I’ll give you a hint — it’s America’s most-watched, most-loved television program.

Meo: Since America loves its reality shows, I’ll assume it was one of those. Something exciting ... “Survivor: Chechnya,” maybe?

Malcolm: No, I’m talking about “American Idol,” of course, which began its seventh season Tuesday night and continued Wednesday. And while in the past I’ve been a see-saw “Idol” watcher, the television writers strike has given me the opportunity to go full blast into “Idol” worship, and I have to say, it still has juice.

Meo: Well, I can breathe again. I thought you were talking about something important. “Idol”? I’m not a fan. I’ve never watched it, I never will. I realize I’m in the minority here, but has anyone considered there are enough B-, C- and D-level celebrities running around to fill every time slot in MTV’s schedule? Do we need to make more? 

Malcolm: We’ve always been making celebrities. Look at “Star Search” or “The Mickey Mouse Club” or “Amateur Night at the Apollo” or Jojo the Idiot Circus Boy on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ever since television was an amoebae, we’ve been churning out celebrities as if they were Play-Doh spaghetti. It’s the American way. And what better show to be helping the cause than “Idol”?

Meo: What America churns out is generation after generation of people who need to be publicly validated, to somehow feel they’re special. I saw the commercials for “Idol.”

They celebrate the freaks that show up for the early stages of the auditions. These people are sad, pathetic souls who, I assume, believe they have talent because mommy didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise. A lot of pain — particularly mine — could be saved if someone would just say, “Sorry Jenny, you have no talent — you can’t sing, you can’t dance. Oh, and you’re ugly. Prepare for a life of obscurity with the rest of us mudskippers.” The producers could at least have the decency to bypass this stage and go right to the people who have a shot at winning.

Malcolm: But that’s what makes “Idol” such a strong television show. It’s not just a singing competition — it’s the American dream. Look, you can debate about mommy not breaking the news to these singing duds (like the sad and completely unrelenting Udi from Tuesday, but most of these people are putting themselves out there for a chance at their goals. Yeah, some of them stink, but they’re completely genuine in their attempts, and that’s what makes America so great, isn’t it? People are allowed to sing, to raise their voices, to shoot for the moon. Let them shoot for the moon, man!

Meo: You’re definitely shooting something. The giant flaw — among many — in “Idol” is the imbalance of the rewards vs. the risk. If you stink, odds are you’ll achieve a kind of anti-celebrity that’s more popular in America — human train wreck status. William Hung takes up a small piece of our collective memory. Miss Teen South Carolina turned 48 seconds of utter, mind-boggling stupidity into a TV tour. If you win “Idol,” you get a record deal, but so does second place. Third place too. Probably the final 10 get some kind of record deal and shots at fame. What’s the point of declaring a winner when everyone wins?

Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin