The unbelievably popular "American Idol" is actually two shows: The first, a brutal, if often hilarious, reality spectacle ended last week. Now that's over, and the show is in transition to something entirely different; something, in fact, resembling a democratic talent competition.
But it's the first three weeks of the show that, this season especially, make "Idol" so weirdly watchable. Yes, the auditions are a cruel spectator sport where contestants are humiliated on national TV. But this time around we also saw something new: The robot has achieved consciousness!
The contestants, that is, are working the show just as fiercely as the show works them. Take Sarah Woodall, a 27-year-old clad in tight pink pants and a pink cowboy hat, who stank up the audition room piteously in an episode shot in Las Vegas and broadcast Jan. 26. "You came in to be on TV," said judge Randy Jackson accusingly. "Well, yeah, but that's what everyone does," Woodall shot back.
This sounds self-evident, but it's truer than ever: The auditions have become a free-for-all for pranksters of all stripes. Could Jackson not have realized the ridiculousness of turning that sniffiness on the contestant? Woodall was, after all, on TV, though who knows what good it might have done her.
That was also the goal of Chris Wylde, a comedian with a canceled Comedy Central show under his belt, who crashed "American Idol" by posing as a nanny and rapping about the judges. It wasn't all that compelling, but hey, he beat the system!
And there's even more to enjoy about auditions: nutty judge Paula Abdul, who is a candidate for sainthood for her sweet temperament to supplicants, for one. And equally exquisite was blue-haired, Ohio girl surprise Briana Davis, whose lyric soprano voice and love of show tunes played brilliantly against her goth demeanor. Sadly, Davis didn't make the cut in Hollywood.
But even after the fun was over, this year's auditions managed to leave that bad aftertaste. At the end of the Las Vegas episode, Jennifer Todd, 27, of Ontario, Calif., beautifully sang an Alicia Keys song. Simon Cowell, biding time, said, "You're a good singer." Guest judge Kenny Loggins said, "I think that there's an image issue here," then added, "But Ruben [Studdard] did. And Aretha's right there."
The point was that Todd is not thin, and the in-house code for fat or ugly is "image problem." And this is how "American Idol" churns up our self-hatred. Am I really as fat as they are? Are people revolted by me? Is everyone laughing at me?
Maybe they are. Todd did squeak through to the next level -- or perhaps the producers were setting us up to sympathize with Todd and her "adversity" -- but immediately after her audition, a pretty boy in tight jeans came on, and his mediocre voice was passed straight on to the next level. (To be fair: His later performance in Hollywood was much better -- and he really is terribly pretty.)
On the Feb. 1 show, the second contestant, Sarah Sue Kelly, 18, of Hillsdale, Ind., had a good voice, a bad choice of audition songs and an "image problem." "If I'm being honest -- honest," said Cowell, "it's the way you look that's putting us off." Jackson demurred. "I'm here just to show," said Kelly, "that I don't have to be a Barbie to be on 'American Idol.' " Though it sure would have helped, because she didn't make the cut, reminding us yet again that the commercial music world these days is like a recruiting office for an army of bulimics.
But? With the exception of first-season winner Kelly Clarkson, then on the chubby side but who otherwise might as well be the missing Simpson sister, all the winners or popular runners-up of "American Idol" are quite human in appearance. Season-three winner Fantasia Barrino beat out more-polished-looking if stylistically similar competitor La Toya London. Studdard, who beat unpretty Clay Aiken in season two, was never compelled by the Fox powers-that-be to subsist on Slim-Fast.
As the show nears its end, it's us fat and funny-looking people who will be doing the voting. So why is the end of "American Idol" so anticlimactic? Because, with the foaming support of millions, the underdogs have become stars, and no matter how funny they look, they don't need our empathy anymore.