When Paula Abdul was finally officially announced yesterday as one of the judges on Simon Cowell's upcoming singing competition show, The X Factor, it was the culmination of almost a year and a half of speculation dating all the way back to Cowell's announcement in January 2010 that he was leaving American Idol. So now the question becomes: With Idol's most popular judges reunited in a new format, can the new show crush the old show?
The idea that The X Factor is a threat to Idol has its doubters. The accepted narrative about this year's Idol is that the show has been revitalized by new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, and by tough competition among strong contestants. A tiny ratings increase is cited as evidence that the show never needed Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul and will last for many, many years into the future without the slightest hitch.
Here's the problem.
People don't give up on reality shows right away. Fans of a particular format know that it can vary in entertainment value based on the contestants, so if they've been watching a show for (in the case of Idol) nine seasons, they don't stop watching in the tenth season just because that season isn't good. That's how Survivor has weathered weak seasons: it has them, but it doesn't have several of them in a row. So you can't really tell whether a particular season is beloved based on whether the audience immediately abandons it.
Speaking for myself, I have found this to be by far the most unwatchable season in the show's history, both because of the excruciatingly boring contestants and because of the fawning, content-free judging. I literally could not care less which of the remaining contestants wins: Haley, the fake tough girl with the unconvincing and affected growl; James, the Adam Lambert imitator who really makes me miss Adam Lambert; the inoffensive but unimaginative Lauren Alaina; or Scotty McCreery, whose smug, sneering imitation of country authenticity reminds me of Walk Hard. It's the first season I've ever checked out of completely, and that's before you even consider the spectacularly awful judging, which has essentially consisted of every judge praising every performance in almost exactly the same words.
In short, I am the target audience for The X Factor. I miss Paula. I miss Simon. I miss Paula and Simon. I don't think Steven Tyler directing lewd comments at teenage girls is remotely charming. I miss the part where occasionally, singing wildly out of tune motivated someone to say something negative about your performance. I miss the part where doing exactly the same thing every week — as McCreery did right up until the part where I stopped watching — would lead someone to suggest you try something else. The "revitalized show" narrative is one of those things, like how much other people loved American Beauty, that makes me feel like Charlton Heston trying to tell everyone about Soylent Green, because I don't know if I'm crazy or they are.
Just looking at the wire photos of Paula and Simon yesterday made me — and I am not afraid to admit this — vaguely nostalgic. I used to really think Idol was fun. Dumb, harmless fun. One week, you might get Kevin Covais' eye-poppingly weird rendition of "Part-Time Lover," and another week, you might get Tamyra Gray's stunning "A House Is Not A Home." Remember, Kelly Clarkson didn't dominate the first season just because of what she did with radio pop; she dominated because of what she did on Big Band Night. It used to be ... fun. It's really not fun anymore.
It's much, much too early to know whether anything — including The X Factor — is going to dislodge Idol any time soon. But if it happens, it's going to be because of people like me, who feel a little baffled by the notion that watching Jennifer Lopez cry all over everybody is supposed to be entertaining. And who, in spite of ourselves, would watch a singing competition if only they'd give us singers to care about. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.