The new year's TV sensation is unmissably Fox's "American Idol." How big? Bill Carter of the The New York Times reported the show's executives have been "startled into silence" at the 2006 numbers. It's a juggernaut, widely viewed by all age groups.
Two years ago, I sat down to watch an episode, not because I wanted to (I certainly didn't), but because I felt the professional obligation. I confess: I was hooked. It was dramatic, it was hilarious, it was heartwarming, it was professional -- all the things that make for good television.
Sadly, this year, you can add another descriptor: It's also now raunchy.
By now, on a show this popular, millions of "Idol" fans have heard the hubbub that some groups have raised against the man playing the role of nastiest judge in this "reality" program, Simon Cowell. He's heard from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for telling one contender to shave and wear a dress. He's heard from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance for making the unnecessary wisecrack in dismissing an obese contestant that they couldn't afford his food bill.
It's time for Fox to hear from parents over the waves of bleeped profanity in these tryout episodes, which have gone from annoying to incessant. Rejected contestants go into profanity-laced tirades, and Fox doesn't turn the camera off. They follow the angry curser down the hall to capture every bleepity-bleep-bleeped utterance, complete with the "American Idol" logo pasted on their mouths.
It descended to an absurd level with a metal-head contestant with dyed-red hair named Ryan Hyatt. When asked if he was the next American Idol, Hyatt said, "[Bleeped F-bomb] yeah." Judge Paula Abdul responded, "You just cursed. We're not allowed to do that. It's a family show." The curser responded, "Well, I'm not a family guy."
And Fox isn't making a family show if they milk this for ratings instead of editing it out.
What followed was worse. After the said metal-head unloaded a satanic screech routine and was rejected, he delivered a predictably obscene rant, with Fox bleeping him 13 times in five seconds.
MSNBC.com writer Andy Dehnart nailed the current trend on the head. On these tryout shows, "Idol" now is no better than other sleazy Fox reality-show outings like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," humiliating people by the dozens to amuse the audience. "Three years ago, in their infancy, the 'Idol' auditions were amusing. Now they've become an exercise in crassness and excessive, unabashed meanness, perfect for a Fox reality show but unbefitting a show that has the reputation as best of its class."
There were other low moments on "Idol" that ruin the show's potential for family viewing. Teenaged transvestite Zachary Travis auditioned in a blouse and high-heeled shoes and proclaimed it "hilarious" that someone would ask if he was a female. (His singing was beyond awful, which, of course, worked to goose more gossip and ratings.) While embarrassed parents struggled to explain transvestites to their young children, GLAAD was publicly demanding a "productive, ongoing conversation" about a ban on mocking people's "gender expression."
One newspaper explained a recent "Idol" show "was basically one long buildup to the sincerely horrific Rhonetta Johnson's public and bleep-happy flame-out." This heavy-set black woman came to audition in a blond wig, a glittery mini-skirt and a silver tube top, out of which she was falling. Fox repeatedly promoted her tryout/tirade as "coming up." They showed her not only swearing a blue-logo streak, but felt the need to put the logo over her crotch area as she made karate kicks in her mini-skirt.
The same sleazy trend has emerged on another hot talent/reality show, ABC's "Dancing With The Stars," which has revived ballroom dancing by pairing professional dancers with amateur celebrities. While some of the female dancers' outfits have been quite risque, it can still play like a traditional dancing show, like you might have seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
But this show recently filled up its air time by featuring the hip-hop group the Pussycat Dolls to perform their hit "Don'cha," which has loose-woman lyrics about "don't you wish your girlfriend was raw like me, don't you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?" That's not exactly lyrics you want your grade-school girl singing the next morning. It's like network executives panic that these hit shows have to stay "current" for the under-50 crowd by squeezing in obscene or hyper-sexed parts.
Parents who love "Idol" can hold out hope that once the freak-show phase of the competition is over, Fox will return to a fairly clean, inspiring music show that can once again be called family-friendly. It's truly sad when Hollywood thinks there's always too much of a good, wholesome thing, and never seems to think there's too much of a bad, raunchy thing.