“American Idol’s” niceness problem

With toothless judges and 24 forgettable finalists, the venerable talent contest slips behind "The Voice"

Topics: TV, Television, American Idol,

"American Idol's" niceness problemSteven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson (Credit: Fox)

Two big things happened on “American Idol” last week. First, the top 24 contestants were chosen. They were a largely bland, unsurprising bunch, selected by one of the most toothless panels of judges on TV, but they’ll still be the ones viewers will vote on for the rest of the season.

More significantly, perhaps, “Idol” was usurped (just barely) as the top show on TV by a fresher-feeling copycat, “The Voice.” There’s actual enthusiasm for the biggest hit on NBC in years and waning excitement around “Idol,” whose tired format in its 11th season is undermined further by judges who have been sweetened into acting all nice, all the time.

Throughout this season and last, the three “Idol” judges loved just about every audition home audiences were allowed to see. Nobody was terrible, or awful, or the worst thing anybody ever heard, to use the phrases of Simon Cowell, whose brutal honesty made the show in the first place.

That left with Cowell, leaving the teddy bear Randy Jackson as the meanest of the three, of all things. And the worst he’ll ever say is, “Dawg, singing is just not for you.” But mostly all he, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler will ever say to the rare reject is “You’re not quite ready, sweetheart” or “Come back next year.”

Cowell was a record producer who didn’t have time for the bad, and no inclination to encourage the mediocre. More than that, he acted as if he had something on the line in considering these voices. The present judges, especially the marquee names, have no such urgency.

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This far into the show, every remaining contestant seems a reminder of a past one: DeAndre Brackensick has the flowing curls of a Jason Castro (but a better voice); teary father Adam Brock the bespectacled look of Danny Gokey with blue-eyed gospel voice of Taylor Hicks. Fifteen-year-old Eben Franckewitz has the pre-puberty voice of a David Archuleta or some kid from “America’s Got Talent.”

There’s one guy with an unfortunate Vanilla Ice haircut and another who seems a little unstable until he’s allowed to play drums while singing; a third has just discovered he is the biological son of the lead singer for the truly terrible ’80s band Flotsam and Jetsam – a little flotsam off the old jetsam, if you will. It’s my favorite fun-fact about any contestant and he’s the last offspring of a famous person, since Jim Carrey’s daughter didn’t make it through Hollywood week.

Hollywood week was so hellacious this season, OSHA may want to investigate labor violations, since it pretty much forces newly formed groups to practice into the evening. So when they do perform, they’re sick or falling into the orchestra pit, or both.

If the current season has a voice of conscience it may be Heejun Han, who makes frank comments about the process and other contestants as if he’s not part of it, until it’s time for him to sing.

All of the guys are pretty good singers and already have an edge over the much more generic group of young women. Among them is David Leathers, an adorable round-faced kid with a voice like young Michael Jackson and the nickname “Mr. Steal Your Girl,” who is so obviously right for the show he plays the role Melanie Amaro played on “X Factor.” Her ouster was so glaringly mistaken, she was asked back to the show and won.

To get back on, Leathers will have to beat a giant with a soulful voice and another deep-voiced country kid with too big a cowboy hat (like the one who won Season 10 – can you remember his name now?).

The top 12 women, by contrast, seem too similar in their passable voices and smiley good looks — even their names are ridiculously similar: There’s a Hollie, a Hallie, a Haley and a Baylie. There are a few country belles in there, should audiences hanker for some more Lauren Alaina, who was runner-up last year in the all-country finals.

Among the women, there seems just a single standout: Big-voiced Jennifer Hirsh, who could be held back only because of her normal, healthy and non-traditional (that is to say: non-size zero) look. Unless voters with a long memory won’t mind harkening back to the first “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson, who by the way will be serving this season as a mentor … on “The Voice.”

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