The return of American Idol usually conjures up words like “silly,” “mindless” and “fun.” Last night, for me anyway, the word was “heartbreaking.” TV’s biggest hit was off-putting last night, and maybe this time not just for me–the early, overnight numbers are in, and American Idol came in 15% lower than the debut of the series one year earlier. As Marc Berman suggests today in his Mediaweek “Programming Insider” column, “at this point it is safe to say that American Idol has officially peaked.”

And not a minute too soon. There was a moment in the middle of the two hour (and it seemed like two hours last night) return when I felt ashamed for tuning in.

A 16-year-old girl, among the hopefuls trying out from Philadelphia, was there to sing for her mother. You could tell before the girl opened her mouth that her only hope was to sound like Alicia Keyes. Quite overweight, she didn’t fit the pop star mold (although, Ruben Studdard–recently dropped by his record label–still gives everybody hope, I guess). Her name seemed mockingly inappropriate: Temptress. We learned from Ryan Seacrest that she is a middle linebacker. She seemed warrior fearless and at the same time, scared to death.

The judges, to their credit, got it right away. No snide dismissal this time from Simon Cowell. No devastating fit of giggles from Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul (what are these two, twelve?).

Instead, she got hugs, sympathy and walked outside by all three judges. Paula even hugged her mother, who was in a wheelchair and morbidly obese, like–and, please, this is not meant to be disrespectful–exactly like the people Richard Simmons used to visit. You saw this woman, you saw her daughter, you didn’t see any way out.

The question is: why did the producers choose to single this girl out, to play up her story, to profile her mom beforehand, to milk this sucker for every ounce of pathos it presented? Was it to show that the judges were kinder this year, that even Cowell has a heart?


One thing I’ve always admired about Cowell was his honesty. Brutally honest, yes, but I believe him when he says that he feels being honest and direct is ultimately less cruel than giving deluded kids false hope.

But there was nothing “feel good” about this moment. It was exploitative. The producers screen the thousands who come out for the mass cattle call auditions and send a select few into the room with the judges.

Since this is television, these kids are not just singled out for talent. As they do here for Canadian Idol, the producers cast their show to include the freaks and geeks as well as the next Idol finalists. They know people come back to the audition shows each winter as much to see the train wrecks as the talent. William Hung, as they say, was gold.

But once you’ve got the fools, the comically deluded, the woman scorned (including a very angry lass from Allentown, Pa., who set a new record for being bleeped last night), what is the point of showing the saddest girl in the world? American Idol has always sent the word out to all of America: give us your poor, your downtrodden, your huddled masses. Last night they went too far. This proud young girl was singled out for pity.

As a viewer, you want an intervention to occur to help this family. After a decade of anything-goes-reality, you expect a media whore like Dr. Phil to step in and use this girl to goose his own ratings. You expect a crew from Extreme Makeovers: Home Edition to build this family a house. You expect the host of The Biggest Loser to invite this girl and her mother on their show, promising a lifetime of fitness and good health.

You expect TV to fix it, but TV can’t. TV can barely fix itself these days.

Despite the kindness from the judges, the girl was devastated. Tears streamed down her face. Not because she wasn’t the greatest singer in the world–deep down, she probably knew that–but because a dream had been shattered. And not just her dream. She was, as she stated, doing this for her mother. Now what.

Maybe, after the cameras were finally turned off, a producer approached this family and offered some constructive counseling. Maybe Oprah was watching and her staff is already inviting the family onto her show. Maybe something very positive will happen as a direct result of the girl lining up, putting on her best shawl and finding the courage to go before the cameras.

I hope so. I just don’t think TV should be held up as the solution, and I hate American Idol for what they chose to show last night.

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