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Next floor, `Idol'-style immortality

February 16, 2007|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

In many ancient cultures -- I don't recall exactly which -- the greatest curse that can befall a person is to have his or her name wiped out of human memory. For a soul to wander the universe for all eternity, anonymous and unmourned. That fate awaited 16 contestants on Wednesday's "American Idol" who gathered at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to hear their fates.

After whittling the pool to 40 contestants in the Hollywood round, the show then takes a not-entirely explained pause to reconsider everyone by "reviewing the tapes." And, presumably, to run background checks to learn who is a wanted drug runner, who has a secret EMI recording contract and who has abandoned families in every state.

So all 40 spend an entire day sitting in a waiting room before they are summoned for a lonely elevator ride into a ballroom where they must take the longest walk of their lives across a Mussolini-sized floor to sit before the trinity, lined up with echoes of "Flashdance" to reveal the judgment of Paris.

It certainly is no longer necessary to win "American Idol" to become a star; losers from past Top 12s have gone on to produce bestselling albums (Clay Aiken), receive Oscar nods (Jennifer Hudson) and hold microphones on red carpets (Kellie Pickler). Even those from past Top 24s who failed to make the big show still spark a glimmer of recognition among the devoted.

However, those who come this far only to die on the far bank of the Jordan will know no glory, no afterlife. This final show is really all icing, no cake -- a dream show with an entire hour devoted to nothing but telling the contestants it could all be taken away.

There can be no construct on television more diabolically devised to squeeze tension out of a situation than the final shared elevator ride. At the end of the day, everyone has gone upstairs to learn their fate except "two guys and two girls" and there is only a slot for one of each. Nearly hysterical from a whole day sitting in a waiting room, in pairs, they are made to ride up the elevator to sit before the judges. And then beautifully, once one has learned her life is over and the other has just been handed immortality, they must ride back down in the elevator together, a thin pretense of camaraderie still intact. It may be the longest one floor of their lives, but in this moment, everyone on the ride is making showbiz history.

Show Tracker is a new column that follows television series through their highs and lows.

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