Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"The Five Year Itch" Starring Simon Cowell

Season five of American Idol began with an off-screen shotgun wedding. After a "delicate and hugely expensive renegotiation,” Simon Cowell was threatened and/or bribed to return to his aisle seat at the most famous table on U.S. television.

Phew! That was a close call.

American Idol without Simon Cowell would be like … Celebrity Fit Club minus Harvey Walden IV. The O’Reilly Factor hosted by Larry King. Oprah’s Book Club without The Smoking Gun.

For me, Tuesday and Wednesday nights without Simon Cowell would free up two more evenings per week for Board meetings. I could keep up with my daily Digital Video Recording of The Young and the Restless and spare my family Saturday soap-a-thons. I could use those ninety precious minutes to exercise while listening to my choice of music, not Clive Davis’. Or not.

Back to reality … TV. I tuned in expecting the Simon Cowell who made mincemeat of fools but reveled in the thrill of raw talent. Instead I was left to wonder, “Who is this dullard and what have they done with my favorite acid-tongued critic?”

If the AI production team had any sense of irony, Cowell’s first screen shot of the season would have been serenaded by Warren Zevon as it was in my head. Thanks to Lawyers, Guns and Money, they were spared a fate worse than cancellation. For now.

As Dorothy Parker purportedly observed, you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think. Well, you can glue someone’s butt to a fancy chair, but that doesn’t mean he will be happy or you won’t be sorry. Ask any woman who begged a man to stay how well that worked out for her.

So, where did the coerced groom go on his honeymoon? Week one began in Chicago with a relaxed Simon true to his trademark snide and snotty form. In Denver, Simon’s interest and patience waned noticeably.

I’m guessing that, somewhere east of the Mile High City, Simon was scolded for his surliness. By the time he got to Greensboro in week two, he adopted an eerie, weary, too cheery façade and prefaced his barbs with disingenuous disclaimers.

In San Francisco, Simon acted bored, restless, and impossible to please. Finally he just walked out and limo-ed back to his hotel. Throughout a third week of cheap insults and lethargy from Las Vegas to Austin, he was nursing a Headache as Frank Black played on my internal jukebox.

The Boston show - the final stop, which made the judges' relief palpable - was downright silly, but the auditions ended as they began. Paula Abdul was a model of charity, clarity and self-discipline. Randy Jackson embraced the goofiness and was the only one having fun. Perhaps Simon was suffering from a perpetual hangover or migraine from reading the fine print of his new contract. He couldn't be bothered to muster any coherent criticism, relying instead on a few lazy buzzwords like "mess" and "horrible."

To be fair, all three so-called judges seemed worn down by the tiresome, repetitive succession of exhibitionists vying to be the new William Hung. I thought this season’s auditions were mostly hollow and joyless - and I only had to endure the edited highlights, which focused on Simon’s sourpuss. I can empathize with his apathy, but it depresses, rather than entertains, me.

In reality TV as in the mainstream media, the editor lets you see only what he wants you to see. Apparently he wanted us to see Simon Cowell being mocked and ridiculed at length by Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest. One moment I particularly enjoyed came after Simon's surprising support of David Radford, an old-fashioned crooner from the Chicago area who sang Frank Sinatra's The Summer Wind. In an amusing twist, Simon had to convince his incredulous colleagues to advance Radford to Hollywood.

As Paula and Randy tried to warn the teenager about the uphill battle awaiting him, Simon told him, "Just be an original."

"'Cause, you know what," Paula snickered as Randy laughed. "He's gonna cut you once you get to Hollywood."

The editor never wants us to see too much of the talent before the field of Hollywood hopefuls narrows. The downside of this strategy is that the talent we were shown thus far elicited little interest from Simon. After four seasons together, we know that Simon is an astute and reliable judge of talent. He identified each of the four American Idol winners early in the contest. When Simon designates a preferred idol, he becomes a passionate campaigner who will not rest until America votes for his favorite.

Is this year’s talent so uninspiring? Does Simon need the auditory equivalent of Viagra? The next phase of the competition should be revealing. I'm still cautiously optimistic that Simon will get his American Idol jones back when the talent emerges in the semi-final rounds.

The AI team went to unusual trouble and expense to put Simon in his place, in their place. They must understand what I recently came to realize after contemplating his possible departure: Simon Cowell is the eyes, ears and voice of the fans. Love him or despise him, he is our proxy. He sets the tone and the standards.

As any divorcee can tell you, the enemy of love is not hate. It is indifference. If Simon’s indifference continues, the audience will become indifferent. And the Idol-makers who congratulated each other for keeping Simon contractually obligated will find themselves legally bound to a marriage in name only.

Their dilemma is that Simon is so closely associated with American Idol that he has become the brand. When you see Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino or Carrie Underwood, you think of American Idol. But, when you think of American Idol, you see Simon Cowell.

So what are they going to do, sue him? Try to convince a judge that he has harmed the franchise by being ... less critical and churlish? And then Simon could subpoena the gay rights activists to testify that he is just as mean as ever. Now that would be must-see Court TV.

Remember that annoying tag line, Seacrest out? The editor excised Ryan from most of the audition clips and I didn't miss him. Did you? Fine, let’s hire Ant away from Celebrity Fit Club.

Paula has honed her constructive criticism into genuinely helpful advice. Randy's weakness remains his poor communication skills. Either of them would be missed, especially Paula who has emerged triumphant and graceful from a tainted year; however, they are not irreplaceable. Adding a fourth panelist would improve the personal dynamics, although my suggestions will have to wait until the next episode.

But Cowell out? Lights out.

Whither Simon Cowell goes, so goes American Idol. Hither, thither and yawn.