Michael Markowitz at Should’ve Asked Me isn’t only a prolific Duckman writer-producer, he’s also one of the few TV writers in the blogging racket who doesn’t turn up his nose at reality TV. And in his most recent post, “The One Where I Fix American Idol,” he has some interesting observations about what holds it back (artistically, I mean, since the shows he compares it to don’t have nearly as many viewers). People often focus on the cruel aspects of Idol, mostly involving Simon, but Markowitz thinks that if anything, the show doesn’t have enough pain and conflict. The best reality shows, like Project Runway, are the story of the contestants, and specifically about what happens when a bunch of unknowns are thrown together and put on national television. The experience of being away from home, in the spotlight and surrounded by strangers (and ordered to be in conflict with those strangers) is a major part of most reality shows, and perhaps the most interesting part. But Idol tries to hide all of that:
Why make the preparation for the show invisible, when that’s the best part? Surely the process of putting that show together is full of drama. Surely pulling kids out of malls and hotel conference rooms and plunking them into the Idol world is a huge, interesting story. Them clashing over who gets to sing which song — as they apparently do — is a great story. They live together, they rehearse together, they chug Red Bull, they go shopping, they hook up…
… and all of it is completely hidden from us. Why? Why does Idol pretend that these kids are all getting along famously? It’s simply not possible. (And being allowed to be human wouldn’t hurt their commercial appeal. Just the opposite.)
And yet it’s pretty clear that the producers of Idol think that the problem with their show is not a lack of conflict and pain, but too much of it; the New York Times suggests that their game plan for the new season is to take off whatever edge the show had already. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see some conflict with Kara, if only because Paula has to know deep down that she’s a potential threat, but that’s the thing: all the conflict involves the judges, because there’s so little involving the contestants. I guess it’s a winning formula, but this is the reason why Idol is more of a variety show than a compelling reality show: except for the bits about humiliating yourself in front of Simon, and the inspirational bits about the contestants’ backgrounds (like the instantly-famous Blind Guy), it doesn’t really do much to characterize the people who should be the most important characters.