The reality show fixation, and in particular that with American Idol, has been going too long and too strong to dismiss as a fad or a fluke. Idol’s Tuesday performance segment and Wednesday’s repeat performance segment — necessitated by a misprint at the end of the show of three of the phone numbers by which viewers vote for their favorite contestants — were the number 1 and 2 rated shows on TV last week according to Nielsen, drawing over 50 million viewers between them.
I myself — who regularly watches only a few network shows, who considers himself a popular music sophisticate, who has never bought a recording by an Idol alum nor is likely ever to do so — feel drawn to the weekly rhythms of performance and results, a sense of moment as each performance episode draws near (hey, it’s on tonight!). And I even succumb to the nonsense of the results show, where somehow a half-hour of prime time TV is filled with the spectacle of (another) recap of the performances (and last week a recap of the recap), some additional blather from the judges, an insult or two hurled between host Ryan Seacrest and hanging judge Simon Cowell, and what amounts to musical chairs leading up to the elimination of the contestant who received the fewest votes from the fans following the performance segment: ie, the most diaphanous and manipulative half-hour on television.
So what is the appeal? After much pondering it has finally occurred to me that the essence of the show’s appeal is the audience’s collective ability to order the execution of a contestant, to exercise control over life and death in a framework that feels consequential — each week someone really is booted off the show — but in reality is just some dopey talent competition. We get the vicarious thrill of screaming “Off with her-his head!” and seeing the order actually carried out — after the announcement of the unlucky victim’s identity we are treated to a brief video segment of the condemned extolling the virtues of the show, her-his undying loyalty to fellow contestants and fans, and a swan song performance before he-she is cast into the gaping void of oblivion!!
But we also know all finalists get to perform on recordings, tour with fellow finalists, and bask in at least a modicum of glory and notoriety henceforth, thereby relieving us of residual guilt left over from the execution. Primal stuff – now who will fall into disfavor tonight?