American Idol (Fox)

Many of my friends knock American Idol for being the preeminent example of why "TV sucks." It's fake, it's overhyped, and it's predicated on an idea that is fallacious to begin with: That regular people ought to have their deluded dreams of becoming famous validated by actually being made famous.

But I give this show huge props for all of those reasons. It's so fake, it's so overhyped, and so utterly fallacious, that it has actually created its own world, with its own logic, rules, and population. American Idol has been more effective at designing a sustainable Utopia than Isaac Asimov, Karl Marx, and The Sims combined.

AI exploits the everyman (or rather, everyteen) misunderstanding that everyone is the center of the universe, and some are born to be stars. It is, of course, hilarious to hear 18-year-olds talk about how they "have always wanted to be a performer," except that this is how most people think these days. Everyone deserves to be famous, apparently. Idol both encourages and refutes the delusion by offering the opportunity to put up or shut up. So although it does ultimately bestow faux-fame on a few talented people, it really underscores the truth that not everyone should be famous, and in fact that most of you are utter shit in every way.

That's why I dig the show. Simon Cowell is everyone's favorite villain (that is, everyone with a blog), but he is 100% the reason American Idol works. People need their dreams dashed. People need to work hard at their craft. He tells the truth, however exaggerated for public consumption. What he says is invariably dead-on; Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul are there to sugar-coat things a little so America doesn't simply become instantly obese out of sheer defeatism.

The show really does take raw, unformed talent and gradually mold them into slick, commercially palatable artists. However, the actual commercial potential is limited to AI's slef-contained world and whatever spill-over that has into the histronic world of screen-named teenagers for whom there is no relevant difference between AI's world and their own. Kids have always bought into media-fed musical charades, so their legitimization of Idol contestants does not amount to actual fame for these people.

Take poor Ryan Seacrest … he may well build a career for himself, but it will always be founded on having served as AI host. His own spin-off show relies heavily on reminding people about American Idol at least twice an episode. So American Idolatry is fleeting and inextricable from a single event … not much different from a noteworthily disgraceful appearance in a high school hazing video.

For Idol winners, the facts speak for themselves … their most notable performances are inevitably on Idol or Idol-related shows. There may be a second album, or even a third, but the returns are ever-diminishing, and none will build the sort of career they seem to have been promised. And eventually, screen-named teenagers grow up, and relative fame is superseded by actual fame, which is enjoyed by no one to emerge from AI's simulated universe.

The real thesis of American Idol, then, is supremely depressing for all the would-be stars who willingly jump into corporate marionette-dom. It is: You will not be famous. Fame is for those who go through all the normal channels; those who truly live and breathe their art until it really happens. You don't get there through tightly-orchestrated karaoke, no matter how well you can emulate what you hear on the radio. You get there by being an artist.

All this said, the show is invariably satisfying to watch. The initial audition episodes for each season are totally hilarious, and as it goes along, the producers spin a good enough tale that you do end up caring who wins, and you're happy when they do. The hype-machine always threatens to kill AI entirely (with three or four painfully drawn-out shows per week as the contest hits its stride), but it offers real suspense, characters to love and hate, and a high-pitched dramatic payoff at the end.

All fake from the word go, of course. But that's the core of great reality televsion.

Review by Mazzy Starr © 2004