If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This has been the motto for “American Idol” for most of its nine-year run.
Sure, once in a while Fox fiddles with something — adds a judge, changes rules to allow musical instruments, alters the format — but it hasn’t done anything so drastic it might jeopardize its major cash cow. But now that there’s a sense of danger on the horizon, rats are starting to desert the sinking ship (Simon Cowell is obviously not ready to play the role of Leonardo DiCaprio on this Titanic, despite the awful barrage of “My Heart Will Go On” covers he’s witnessed over the years) and it’s time to look at ways the show can evolve and surprise to ensure its 10th season isn’t its last.
After a 2009 season that had people buzzing about Kris, Adam and Alison, this season also has people talking. Well, it’s more like bitching and moaning — complaining about how this is the worst season ever and how the show may be doomed now that it’s Simon’s last hurrah.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. We had several promising contestants in the Top 24 such as Didi Benami and Lilly Scott, but they were abandoned by voters who seemed to want to reward mediocrity. If Crystal Bowersox wins (and I fear she may be an underdog going into Tuesday night’s final performance show), the season won’t be a total loss. She’d certainly be among the better winners the show has seen.
But what can the show do next season to regain its buzz? Here are 10 suggestions.
1. Get rid of all the current judges and hire three new ones. Four is simply too many when they don’t have much of value to say. Randy is worthless. Ellen too often eschews her job — being a judge. Kara has the most valid musical points, but comes off as condescending and annoying. Simon is leaving. It’s time for new blood — maybe Katy Perry and Neil Patrick Harris , as they seemed to bring a little edge to their critiques during their guest spots in the audition rounds — or to bring back some old blood. Will Paula come back as lead judge now that Simon’s gone? We’ve missed her alcohol-sodden musings. Another idea: Enlist two permanent judges and keep the third seat open for a guest judge to bring a new perspective to the show each week.
2. Get a new host. Ryan Seacrest has seemed weirder than usual this season, picking more fights with Simon and embarrassing contestants. Now that Simon is leaving, let’s send his adversary on a permanent hiatus. How about moving Ellen from the judge’s table to the host spot, where she would seem more comfortable?
3. Reform the voting system. Too much is decided by a mass of texting teen girls. I’m not sure the best way to go about this, but it needs to change.
4. Get rid of the judges’ save. The idea was to use it in cases where obvious talent was sent packing too soon. They used it to save Big Mike. Enough said.
5. Instead of packing shows with so many lame and redundant filler questions — and listening to Lee mumble relentlessly — let’s get back to having more performances. Contestants used to do three songs on Top 3; now it’s two and more windbaggery.
6. If they’re going to add more reality-show touches such as backstage cameras, why not go all the way and meld the show into part-performance, part-“Real World”? Allow only contestants 18 and older — which would have the side benefit of not hearing them referred to constantly as high school students —and film them all in a deluxe house stocked with liquor, then let the drama and exhibitionism fly. You’d need a mix of talented singers and drama queens. Even if the latter couldn’t sing, it would be preferable to boring people who can’t sing, like Paige Miles.
7. Change up the theme weeks. Let’s have no more restrictions in the semifinal rounds. Contestants can sing what they want as long as it gets cleared, with no producer meddling. During the Top 12, all theme weeks should be new and more interesting than the oft-recycled themes we’ve been getting for year. How about one week having competitors choosing a song for a competitor by choosing out of a hat, secret-Santa style. It would be interesting to see what kind of sabotage would be employed. Or how about great, underused songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Leonard Cohen (except “Hallelujah,” of course)? Or original songs?
8. Work on the song selection issue. Have the judges create the song choice list. And perhaps they could offer suggestions for the contestants, so it’s not always a complaint about picking the wrong song. Ban songs that have been done to death on the show. Does anyone really want to hear another massacre of “Against All Odds”?
9. Break the season up into 12 mini-seasons by genre: Mainstream pop, country, soul, indie rock, etc. and then have the winner of each compete in the Top 12. The mini-seasons could be broadcast by a cable affiliate or broadcast by Fox on Saturday nights throughout the year.
10. Have a champions round. Invite back the winners, runners-up and a selection of prominent wildcards such as Jennifer Hudson to create an “all-star” (I use that term quite loosely) Top 24 to fight it out for supremacy.