By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
The most popular reality series got better singers and less-cheesy shows for its second season. But it's still not classic TV in a good way.
Let's get one thing straight: I'm still not completely sold on American Idol.
Yeah, it's the most popular reality show on TV (according to Nielsen Media Research, only Joe Millionaire has scored bigger ratings this season, and it ended in February). And yes, it has finally, as it nears the end of its second season, turned into something resembling a singing contest.
It's also a manipulative, hokey, exploitive billboard masquerading as a talent competition. And any idea that "judges" Simon Cowell, Randy "Dawg" Jackson and Paula Abdul do anything but prod the audience and contestants into overreaction is just more reality TV hooey.
Still, it's obvious that Idol producers didn't just sit on their 30 share of the audience when they prepared for the second edition. They actually improved it.
The increased quality of the contestants is just one welcome development. As a longtime musician, I used to joke that I could make five phone calls and find 10 singers better than last year's American Idol finalists; I'm not saying that this year.
Past complaints, ranging from the emphasis on svelte, MTV-ready physiques to clumsy, obvious product placement, have been addressed for a youth-viewer magnet whose twice-weekly episodes are prime time's fifth (Tuesday) and eighth (Wednesday) most-watched series. (The Tuesday night performance show is more popular than the Wednesday night results show. Go figure.)
On the eve of what no doubt will be a blockbuster finale tonight and Wednesday, the question was: What have they gotten right?
It's now a singing contest. We think.
One look at last year's final three - Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini and Pat Benatar wannabe Nikki McKibbin - left little doubt that visual appeal counted as much as vocal ability. (For those ready to argue, five words: Ryan Starr and Jim Verraros.)
In a pointed and welcome contrast, this year's final three were decidedly MTV-unfriendly and gifted with blow-out-the-barn-doors vocal ability worthy of the show's pretentious, star-making attitude.
Until he hits the first note, carrot-topped Clay Aiken comes off like Alfred E. Neuman's younger brother (albeit with access to quality dental care). Beefy Ruben Studdard seems ready to fill in for Barry White and Luther Vandross. Kimberley Locke, ejected last week, was more Aretha than Whitney during her inspired appearances.
But no one could deny their vocal power, and their success in eliminating the mannequins that stood in their way gave hope to every geeky kid with a penchant for belting out numbers from Pippin.
Viewers still don't have much access to vote tallies. So we've got to take Fox's word when it says that audience favorite Studdard was nearly kicked off before plodding Marine Josh Gracin a few weeks ago - at just the right time to keep the contest from getting too predictable.
One newspaper writer has already authored a bitter column saying that Studdard doesn't have a chance - not because he's a candidate for Weight Watchers but because he's black. Personally, I think Studdard's biggest problem is that Cowell - whose "I'm not a jerk, I'm just honest" shtick is getting old fast - has been shameless in pushing for him to win.
The product placement, synergy and show padding is a little more subtle.
The Coke cups still sit in front of the judges. Host Ryan Seacrest often whips out a cell phone to reel off a quick endorsement. And did finalists really need to sing three songs last week?
But producers have smoothed their technique a little, bringing back Idol alums Clarkson and Guarini (to promote their new albums and upcoming movie), while filling out shows with a dwindling number of contestants and a growing viewership.
I'd still rather see better guest judges than a shell-shocked Smokey Robinson or Diane Warren (forget Sir Paul McCartney, a guest suggested by one of the show's producers in this week's TV Guide; use onetime country vocal prodigy LeAnn Rimes, who proved her critical chops during a Star Search stint). And it's time for Idol to insist that its singers also have stage presence to go with their superior vocal chops.
Still, given that this show is likely to stick around awhile, it's a good sign that producers were able to amp up an already winning formula. Now, if they could only tame Seacrest's haystack hair . . .
American Idol's two-part finale airs tonight from 8 to 9 and Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. on WTVT-Ch. 13.