Wednesday night saw "American Idol" transform from a singing contest into a telethon. Rather than send any of the six remaining contestants home (their vote totals carry over to next week, when two of them will be eliminated), the two-hour special -- co-hosted by Ryan Seacrest from the regular "Idol" stage and Ellen DeGeneres from Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles -- was devoted to raising money for various charities in Africa and the United States. The result was a show of jarring juxtapositions.
A truckload of celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Keira Knightley, Ms. Piggy, Bono, etc.) were enlisted to help solicit donations, and guest performers like Annie Lennox, Josh Groban and Il Divo dropped by to sing big, syrupy ballads. By fundraising standards, the evening was a success -- it brought in over $30 million -- but in entertainment value, not so much.
"Idol" is normally about as upsetting as an after-school special, but this episode offered up images of poverty and desolation that were hard to watch and brought the frivolity of the rest show into clear focus. Footage of a trip Seacrest and Simon Cowell took to Kenya showed, in unrelenting detail, people suffering terrible physical and emotional pain from hunger, disease and hopelessness. We saw a severely ill woman carried limply from her home to receive medical treatment -- and were told she died soon after. We saw an orphan driven to tears from talking about the death of his parents. We saw 14 people, some of them HIV positive, forced to live together in one tiny room.
The footage of American hardship was nearly as heartbreaking. A young L.A. girl broke down crying when she explained to Paula Abdul that her mother has to work three jobs just to make do. A Randy Jackson-led tour of New Orleans showed a landscape of hollowed-out homes and ripped-up fields. A Kentucky man mourned the lack of jobs for local youngsters.
Why "Idol's" producers thought seeing Celine Dion sing a duet with a virtual Elvis or watching Jack Black mug in front of the judges would come across as anything but incredibly insensitive after viewers had witnessed images of the dying and the destitute, I just don't know.
But by next week, the dying, the destitute and the famous will be gone and "Idol" will be back to its regular fluffy business. I wonder if by then the efforts of Chris Richardson, Melinda Doolittle, Phil Stacey and the rest will seem any less cosmically insignificant than they do right now.
-- David Marchese