Five Questions on American Idol: Why Has This Season Been So Good So Far?

Michael Becker / FOX American Idol - Stephanie Sanson

Whatever doesn’t deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. It’s been good so far! They’re as surprised as anybody!


Do we have any theories about why this season is so good so far? It’s really good, isn’t it? We were ready to be pulling out our hair by now. When was the last season that was this promising?

Kang: Two theories:

1. If you can remember through the cloud of PTSD, we just spent the past 90 billionty gajillion weeks trapped in the X Factor gulag and although our resolve held firm through the gruel of Tate Stevens and the nightly torture of Britney sneaking into our cots and Dutch ovening us (“NO TOUCHING DURING THIS PROCESS!”), you never can tally the cumulative damage to the morale of the singing competition recapper. So, when Idol surprised us with Nicki Manga and at least TEN very good contestants, it felt like heaven. The show might not be as great as it feels right now, but it’s so much better than The X Factor.

2. They’ve opened the floodgate to every sort of entertaining act this season. Say what you will about Papa Peachez’s chances of winning the competition, I’d rather watch him dance around and sing Ma Rainey than watch yet another pageant queen with 15 parts in her hair moan to Jesus to take the wheel or whatever. When you have those types of entertaining acts spliced in with some actual singing talent, it actually makes for a good seven hours of television.

Also, there are FEWER EFFING KIDS on the show, which means that I spend less time thinking of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret and what all these little monsters are going to be like in a few years when they witness something truly traumatic and can only resort to their weird, cloistered lives as singing competition robots.

Lisanti: Three theories:

1. It feels like they have significantly cut down the freak-show aspect of the usually unbearable cattle-call rounds, which has been a gimmick of rapidly diminishing returns since about Season 3. Yes, there was a time when it was actually fun to laugh as the audition conveyor belt carried by a nonstop supply of tone-deaf maniacs in tattered lace croaking out unsettling renditions of “Material Girl” as they smeared themselves in lipstick, knowing that as soon as it transported them out of the frame, a producer would put a bolt in their neck and end their misery. But that time is long gone, and it now feels like Nigel Lythgoe took a nasty spill in the shower, hit his head on his Simon Cowell bust shampoo dispenser, and realized the key to saving the show would be adjusting the talent-to-garbage ratio to the neighborhood of 9:1. I can’t remember how it went last season, because the intervening X Factor fiasco made a queasy blur of the past 12 months, but I have the feeling something’s very different so far.

2. The judging panel upgrade. They have chemistry, even with Randy increasingly proving himself to be the vestigial tail of singing competition judges. Yeah, it’s cute when it wags, but it no longer serves any evolutionary purpose. His giant-watch game is still on point, though..

3. Every time I see Nicki Minaj I’m overcome by a wave of calm, because I’m imagining myself slowly running a tiny pink Barbie brush through her hair. It’s hard to get worked up about the dummy ice-picking “Beautiful” to death when Nicki’s counting out the strokes in a whispery voice and telling me, “It’s OK, baby, that bad person will be gone soon. Keep brushing, you’re doing great.”

Yoshida: One theory: Idol has finally chilled out. Sometime in between The Voice and The X Factor’s second seasons, Simon Fuller realized that he didn’t have to worry about the prodigal Simon’s imported terrorbaby eclipsing him on his network, nor did he have to really worry about any singing show becoming more relevant, no matter how many totes random animals Cee Lo Green brought to set. It’s been two years since the initial Clash of the Talent Shows, the dust is settling, and it’s clear Idol doesn’t have anything to prove; maybe it never did. But it also isn’t nearly the monolith it was before, and it’s adjusted its tone accordingly; I don’t feel like we’re being shouted at every week about how the talent this season is better than ever and nothing will ever be the same, etc. The sob stories have been dialed back, as have the painful bad auditions that until recently seemed to dominate the first few weeks of every season. American Idol is officially just another tried-and-true American tradition, like drinking before noon on Thanksgiving, which means there’s a relaxed, comfortable feel to the auditions without diminishing our interest in whatever’s being served up later.

This all may be a long, winded way of saying that Idol stopped pretending to be anything but a show for old people and children, which is something I totally approve of. Dorky, flamboyant The Voice seems like an NBC show through and through, The X Factor’s punishing, empty intensity is classic Fox, but somehow American Idol seems more like a CBS show at this point. (A CBS show starring Nicki Minaj. Who, it goes without saying, is still the real reason this is the best season in years.)


Who was your favorite contestant this week?

Kang: Easy. Adam Sanders, who I hope will become the fatter Adam Lambert and who has a rather impressive cache of videos on YouTube, most of which feature him singing in front of a webcam with what appears to be the headphones from the car Discman I saved up and bought back in 1996, back when I was delivering pizzas in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and dreaming of the day when I would be waking up at 6:35 in the morning to write about a televised singing competition.

I also loved Nate Tao, the American Sign Language instructor with the two deaf parents. He almost cleaned out the bitter taste of the earlier audition weeks, when the Idol producers went back to their tried-and-true game of “LAUGHIN’ AT AZNS!” And although Randy slipped in a “I thought you were going to do my taxes,” you have to forgive him for his myriad racial infractions this season. Back when Randy was growing up, whites sang white songs, blacks song black songs, Asians built railroads and starred only in A Christmas Story, and giant fat future Idol judges played bass in Journey.

Yoshida: Micah Johnson. Best bait-and-switch of the season so far. I love that he came out and sang a pretty lighthearted, straightforward country song; there was something really lovely about (1) realizing that his speech impediment was barely noticeable when he sang, (2) hearing such a sweet tone on such a cheerful melody after a rather somber, heavy-handed intro package. Also, now I know there is a song called “Chicken Fried,” so thanks for that, Micah.

Lisanti: Let’s go Vincent Powell. It takes a lot of guts to come back to the show after washing out in a previous Hollywood Week because Randy is a slurper, having reinvented yourself as 2004 Drew Carey with a potentially stalker-level Mariah fixation. He’s still pretty likable, and he can sing. (Confidential to Mariah: Get extra security on your dressing room, unless you want to find a guy in nothing but chunky glasses sprawled out on your Siberian tiger rug, seductively pouring a bottle of your Dom onto his chest.)


Who’s got the most affecting sad story? This season has the most sad stories.

Kang: Steven Tyler, who came back to Idol in a Farrah Fawcett wig and Liza Minelli’s dress from the 1985 Tony Awards. I don’t understand what’s going on with Aerosmith’s contracts, but they must be fucking awful if Steven Tyler, after being kicked off the show that sapped whatever micrometer of rock credibility he had left, comes crying back to wish everyone good luck down the road.

Yoshida: Oscar the Dog, who officially beat Alex Lambert’s record for quickest post-show life collapse. I’ve yet to see a more poignant image on this show than his lifeless, deflated body at the side of the stage while his mysteriously hot ventriloquist claims her golden ticket and runs out to celebrate with her mysteriously hotter husband. (On the subject of sad stories, as I said above, I feel like this season actually has a much lighter touch with them; if this were Season 10 or 11, Halie Hilburn would have had a bullying background story set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” not this guy:)

Lisanti: I found a more poignant image:

RIP, Oscar. Some of your final moments were spent with Ryan Seacrest’s forearm in your anal column, and then they threw you in a dumpster. You deserved better.


Choose a side: Papa Peachez vs. Zoanette Johnson

Yoshida: I wish no harm to either of them, but I’m going to have to be Team Peachez for this one if only because I’m 99 percent positive that Zoanette was on crack during her audition. And I don’t mean that in an “OMG you cracked out” metaphorical way, I mean that I may have seen Zoanette hanging around outside the Yoshinoya Beef Bowl at Santa Monica and Vine yelling at customers to vote for Obama in December. And sure, everyone on Idol is mentally unstable in some way or another, but Zoanette was clearly not lucid during her audition, and I don’t think it’s nice to continue to put her on TV. Papa Peachez may not have had the most special tone when you took away all that flaming “theatricality” that made Keith so squirmy, but at least he was on pitch and sober. (Though if one more skinny white dude tells us that he has a “big black woman inside him” on one of these shows, I might have to request mandatory ultrasounds at registration from here on out.)

Kang Team Peachez. Duh. I also want to point out that the craziest contestant this week was actually that ventriloquist girl.

Lisanti: “Your voice is out of this world.” — Nicki Minaj. I’m choosing to focus on the positive. I bet if Obama had invited her to the White House, she wouldn’t have pulled that lip-syncing bullshit. And I also bet Kang already likes her better than Beyoncé.


Do you think Stephanie Sanson, the death metal/hardcore girl with the purple hair, was the greatest “I want to get on TV performance” ever?

Kang: Yes! She completely nailed it. First, she did the whole, “I know I’m not the typical contestant” thing, which makes you think she’ll sing something sweet and soft that lets us all know that we’re people underneath all the glitter, the Hot Topic spangles, and the earrings from Clare’s Accessories. Then she furthered that whole charade by telling the judging panel that she was going to sing an Adele song. I was even impressed by her double-barreled middle fingers, which were pretty damn emphatic for a girl of such a young age.

Most importantly, I’m PRETTY SURE SHE PULLED THE FIRE ALARM, GUYS? Doesn’t it make a ton of sense?

Yoshida: Good god. I think you’re right. This girl is a genius! Here I was, thinking that the secret best thing about her was that the name of her screamo band was YOLO, which is just … I mean, haha, OK, sure — and now I’m not even sure if that wasn’t part of the ruse. Kind of not sure how to proceed with my life now that I know I’m just a pawn on Stephanie Samson’s chess board.

Lisanti: This was the single best moment in American Idol history, and Stephanie Sanson is a hero. [Rises at desk, queues up Zoanette’s national anthem in the background, salutes YouTube video with the double-bird.] I’ve never been proud to recap this show.

Prouder. I meant prouder.

Jay Caspian Kang really hates Beyoncé.
Emily Yoshida only lives once.
Mark Lisanti is still saluting.

Filed Under: American Idol, Idol, Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson, Reality TV, Recaps, TV