In retrospect, don't you miss Sanjaya Malakar?
As this season of "American Idol" hurries to its end, I've been thinking about last year's bugaboo, the twiggy teenager with the enterprising hair who got so many people talking. And when I came across a recent magazine picture of Sanjaya, hoisted in a chair as he visited a fan's bat mitzvah, I had a small "Idol" epiphany. This kid still is - and always was - willing to do anything for entertainment. And the great deficiency of "Idol" this year is that it largely forgot to entertain.
It's not that there haven't been striking moments and pulpy intrigue, from Paula Abdul's apparent time travels to the standard shocking exits of talented contenders. (Remember, Kristy Lee Cook outlasted Michael Johns. Wow.) And we have had David Cook, the rocker with a knack for picking other people's bold arrangements, who managed to shock one week by singing an Andrew Lloyd Webber ballad straight-on. But from the other contestants, for the most part, we've had a soaring sense of sameness, a deep predictability. They've been consistently and maddeningly fine.
Predictability is something Sanjaya never gave us. Week by week, we wondered not only how he would wear his hair, but how he would sound: Abysmal as he could be, he was sometimes shockingly decent. "Besame Mucho" - who could complain?
This year, nearly everyone has clung to the comfort zone, whether due to limited talent or some deep fear of failure. After one failed experiment with a Stevie Wonder cover, David Archuleta stuck to a stream of uplifting lite-pop ballads. After one disastrous effort to dance along to "Here Comes the Sun," Brooke White retreated to the safety of a piano bench, and spent each week churning out the same mournful arrangement of whatever song she hap pened to be singing. After a couple of weeks of early judges' praise, Jason Castro never even tried to branch out from his sensitive, guitar-strumming, coffeehouse shtick.
Musically, artistically, these are valid choices, all. It's hard to imagine Jack Johnson attempting a power ballad, and that's probably a good thing. Celine Dion is never going to tear off the bottom of her ball gown and rock out like Janis Joplin.
But as Sanjaya might tell us, this isn't a Vegas concert or a Cafe Passim gig. It's a television show first and foremost, a singing competition second. And all of this sameness made for mediocre TV.
Perhaps this was an unlucky accident of the casting process. Each season of "Idol" has offered its tokens: the country gal, the R&B stylist, the isolated rocker who feels compelled to wear black pants. But this season, the judges, knowingly or not, let in a greater share of one-note performers. And "Idol" at times has seemed less a talent contest than a referendum on musical genres. If you were a Lilith Fair devotee, you voted for White, regardless of how she looked and sounded that week, and you helped her to outlast her usefulness.
What made things worse was the producers' decision to introduce musical instruments. What seemed like a good idea wound up being a crutch, a way for contestants with limited skills to hide behind their props. And it contributed to another depressing development in "Idol" stagecraft: More than ever before, this season's contestants had a tendency to stand - or sit - stock still.
How much this boringness accounts for "Idol's" slightly dwindling ratings is unclear; by its seventh season, any ongoing series will show signs of decay. But the viewers are clearly restless, as evidenced by chatter about proposed changes to the "Idol" formula. Some have suggested tweaks in the voting process: factoring in scores from the judges, a la "Dancing With the Stars"; collecting votes on whom to eliminate, instead of whom to keep; limiting the number of votes from any home phone or cellphone, which may or may not be technically possible. (Some even believe the producers should bring back past eliminees, as "Project Runway" sometimes does. If so, you know who would get my first vote.)
But empowering or emasculating voters won't truly help restore that old, lost "Idol" sense of fun. What we really need is something less cataclysmic: for the producers to step in and take control. This might be a tougher task than it seems; last week's performance show, in which the judges and producers had a hand in song selection, was mostly as genre-bound as ever.
Still, since the rules of "Idol" are ever-changing - a TV show like this has no written constitution - the producers have every right to step in if a season is looking dull. If they've given contestants instruments, they can take them away. If the contestants aren't being suitably bold, they can set new rules for arrangements: If you sang a ballad last week, you have to go up-tempo this time. Let the band choose the arrangements. Or the guest mentors. Or Simon Cowell. Anyone but a contestant who refuses to be bold.
The emphasis needs to be on forcing contestants out of what's comfortable, and into the unfamiliar and untested. The results could be spectacularly bad. They could be surprisingly good. But they'd doubtless be more interesting than what we've seen this year.