American Idol, like anything else I’ve ever loved, is exhausting. The week-by-week eliminations are exhausting. The contestant backstories, reiterated hundreds of times through a season like peer pressure warnings in a D.A.R.E. video, are exhausting. Ryan Seacrest’s distinctly Pat Sajak-ian blend of hospitality and palpable contempt is exhausting. I’m hyperventilating now remembering every configuration of judges – even Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson – and their endless attempts to telegraph “chemistry” for our viewing pleasure. For a juggernaut that dates back to the halcyon days of Nellyville, American Idol has always been an effort to endure. And then, out of nowhere, a thrill to survive.
It’s only when a season is over – or in this case, the 23 months since the season 15 finale – that the pleasures of Idol come back to me: Melinda Doolittle reinvigorating “My Funny Valentine”; Katharine McPhee bopping on her knees for no reason during “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”; Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta power-hugging after their triumphant “Slow Ride” duet (surely clinking grommets on each other’s “rocker” attire); the hurt of Fantasia Barrino; the terror of Sanjaya Malakar; Neil Sedaka pained with admiration after being introduced to the impossible, unknowable concept of Clay Aiken; and, of course, our introduction to Kelly Clarkson, that singular belter who manages to be relatable without pandering, cool without aloofness, and true to herself even when Clive Davis or Dr. Luke or 19 Entertainment said that wasn’t in the contract.
But we’re well past the Idol golden era. We’re even past Idol’s subsequent awkward years where judge Kara DioGuardi, Simon Cowell’s second Mrs. de Winter, did her job wrong by being smart and thoughtful, or when Ellen DeGeneres was bewildered to learn that she couldn’t jitterbug out of every contestant critique, or when Mariah Carey threw glitter at the magnificent season 12 winner Candice Glover just to have something to do. In 2018, we find Idol on ABC without even a whiff of Keith Urban’s Peppermint Patty bob to remind us of the past. It’s a fresh, Disneyfied start – unless, of course, you consider the recent sexual assault allegations from Ryan Seacrest’s former stylist Suzie Hardy, who claims that the Idol host subjected her to years of abuse. Maybe Giuliana Rancic doesn’t have to stand near Seacrest on the E! red carpet anymore, but Idol viewers still must endure his voice overs and contestant introductions as we barrel through the audition episodes. It’s not comfortable and I’m not sure it ever will be. So much for new beginnings as we pray the specter of The Voice, the odd hit that keeps delivering quirky gurglers and their garbled versions of “Fast Car” (or whatever), doesn’t render this whole thing moot.