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Reality TV stars
From left, Marissa Jaret Winokur of "Dancing With the Stars," Brooke White of "American Idol," Michael Johns of "American Idol," Spike of "Top Chef," David Archuleta of "American Idol," and Amanda Overmyer of "American Idol."

Kiss up? Break down? Or talk back?

Reality TV is a study in how to answer your critics

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / April 15, 2008

Tonight on "American Idol," we'll get heartfelt singing of varying quality, ongoing bad jokes about Simon Cowell's hair, and, most likely, some back talk that gets everybody buzzing. Will Brooke White make a point of forgiving the judges when they tell her she was mediocre? Will Carly Smithson keep describing herself as a feeble spirit, crushed by the cruel music industry? Will David Archuleta once again be sheepish about his technical perfection?

This has been one of the rituals of the sixth "Idol" season, and to most of the enduring reality contests: listening to explanations, rationalizations, and self-aggrandizements. The moment of judgment - when the audience tests its raw reaction against the informed views of the experts - has always been crucial to shows like "Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars," or "Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious" or "Top Chef." But the longer these shows last and thrive, the more some contestants seem to be striking back. A contest about singing or ballroom dancing or hoochie-dancing or food becomes a tutorial in the practical art of accepting a public critique.

Nobody said getting nailed by judges was easy, especially when cameras are rolling. And these days, it must be tempting for contestants to assert themselves. The judges are prepped and coached to be as pithily cutting as possible. The audience is trained to howl in response. In some cases, contestants themselves are prepped to act like divas. And when the ever-more-bloated entertainment press treats contestants like full-fledged celebrities, the wannabes on a show like "Idol" - once, folks who were just happy to be there - arrive with a special sense of entitlement. Why shouldn't they get to sass the judges, too?

Well, because back talk can be a dangerous thing. Judges have egos, and in a world where, say, Donald Trump rules, you don't really want to risk raising his ire. And on a show where viewers are the final arbiters of "in" and "out," talking back can seriously threaten your popularity. Long-departed "Idol" contestant Danny Noriega didn't help his own longevity when he dismissed Cowell with a flouncy "What-ever!" White started out her "Idol" run with a deep reservoir of good will - how can you hate a person who cries when she sings "Let it Be"? - and managed in one week, after talking to the judges, to annoy her way out of America's heart.

Maybe "Dancing With the Stars" has the formula right: Have the contestants submit to judgment when they're totally out of breath. And yet even the "Dancing" stars find a way to show their feelings. Sometimes, they even fall into one of these categories of judgees:

The Excuse Maker

It's unclear exactly why Australian-born crooner Michael Johns got the "Idol" boot last week, but it might have had something to do with the fact that he had an answer for everything. Randy and Simon say Aerosmith's "Dream On" is a poor song choice for him? Michael explains that the song is about living your dreams, and that's what "Idol" is. On Beatles Night II, chastised for choosing a song that didn't fit into a 90-second format, he launched into a lengthy explanation of why he dedicated it to a friend who died young. On MTV's new "Rock the Cradle," Chloe Lattanzi, the daughter of Olivia Newton-John, explained away her screechy performance of INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart" by explaining that her ear monitors went out: "You're right, like, I totally screwed that performance up but . . . I couldn't hear."

The judges seemed unimpressed. Better to be like Miguel of Bravo's "Step It Up and Dance," who, when told to "butch it up a little bit more," nodded politely and called himself a name.

The Over-Agreer

Perhaps this is a classic case of praise going to your head. After hearing lots of gushy accolades from Cowell and crew, Brooke White finally put forth a dud of a performance a few weeks ago, and this time, the judges let her have it. Randy criticized her for putting an awkward "whoo!" in the middle of "Here Comes the Sun." Brooke said, "The 'whoo' totally slipped out. I shouldn't have done that, I agree with you." Randy said she danced awkwardly. Brooke said, "I am awkward moving." She interrupted Simon's rantings to say, "Hey, guys, it's OK." He resumed his rant. She interrupted again. No hard feelings - except among the viewers.

The Grateful One

On "Dancing With the Stars," Broadway actress Marissa Jaret Winokur is this season's answer to Marie Osmond: the underdog who gets so excited by the judges' lukewarm comments that she looks like she's going to faint. At one point, Marie Osmond actually did. Winokur hasn't gone that far. But after a moderately decent paso doble last week, she won faint praise from the judges, smiled broadly, and then jumped up and down in circles. It was actually kind of charming.

The Egotist

Spike and Andrew, contestants on Bravo's "Top Chef," are so close to being identical that it's a good thing Spike wears a hat. They also share a knack for extraordinary self-confidence. After they served soggy corn dogs and a tasteless pasta salad at a neighborhood block party, Spike defended his team by insulting his down-home patrons. The professional judges "have very good palates, intense palates, and you can taste food better than others," he snarled. And when the judges insisted that any schmo can detect a soggy corn dog, Andrew took a stand. "In terms of me going home right now, you'd have to drag me out with security guards more or less," he said. "This is my house." Because he wasn't the chief corn dog culprit - and because his ego is so entertaining - he got a well-deserved pass.

The Sheepish Talent

The "oh, really?" look perfected last season by Melinda Doolittle of "Idol" has now been taken on by odds-on favorite Archuleta. Granted, he's not as bad as Doolittle, who feigned surprise so broadly that it looked as if her eyes were going to pop out of her head. But Archuleta has mastered the wide-eyed wonder, shyly mouthed "thank you," the look of relief, as if he's finally confident that somebody won't hit him with a stick. Some could find it charming. Others find false modesty a little off-putting.

The Disagreer

No one has been as bold with back talk this season as Amanda Overmyer, the Janis Joplin wannabe who was 11th-place finisher on "Idol." A sourpuss look was part of her thing, but her disdain for the judges was also clear - especially the week that Paula suggested that Amanda might try a ballad, and Simon said she was boring. "Boring is a word that I'm sure is not used much to describe you," Ryan Seacrest told her afterward. "Oh, no," she replied. "Ballads are boring."

The voters disagreed. Seems they prefer the sweeter, if misplaced, self-confidence of perennial underdog Kristy Lee Cook, who once told the judges, "I can blow you out of your socks and you know it." Allowed to stick around for a few more weeks, Kristy eventually did.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

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