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'Idol' Season 12 Will Be Remembered for All the Wrong Reasons
May 17, 2013  | By Ed Martin

Candice Glover is our twelfth American Idol. Congratulations are in order, not simply for winning television’s toughest talent competition but for doing so during a season in which Fox executives and Idol producers excitingly “screwed the pooch,” as one executive closely involved with the show so delicately put it during a recent conversation with me.

I don’t know how many seasons Idol has left in it. I stubbornly refuse to consider the idea that it won’t be around for many more, given that it was the most important series on broadcast television during ten of its twelve years, one that elevated the profile not only of its network but of its entire medium. There’s no reason why it can’t stay with us for a long time to come — that is, if the people in charge go back to treating it and the audience with the respect both deserve, which largely went out the window this year, and if Ryan Seacrest (right, with Glover and runner-up Kree Harrison) stays on as host. I really can’t imagine anyone other than the always agreeable Seacrest in the role he has had from the start. There’s nobody better at the job, except perhaps for Tom Bergeron, but he has other things to do.

Say what you want about the much-discussed friction and failure this year at the judges’ table, but let’s give credit where it’s due. Randy Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Mariah Carey identified five young women who comprised the most talented group of girls in the history of this show, even if they did, to riff on the unfortunate executive expression quoted in the first paragraph of this column, “violate the dog” when it came to identifying males who could carry a tune.

As talented as Janelle Arthur and Amber Holcomb are, the top three — Angie Miller, Kree Harrison and Ms. Glover — were among the best performers Idol has ever introduced to the American public. I thought these three girls were so incredible that, for me, the final competition show with the three of them (on May 8) was in every way this year’s super-duper season finale. That’s how entertained I was during those two hours, and that’s what I will take away from this needlessly tumultuous season.

It’s really a shame that these four judges (from far left: Carey, Jackson, Minaj, Urban) didn’t work out, for whatever combination of reasons, and that someone involved with the promotion of the show stupidly thought that playing up their conflicts would somehow delight the audience and raise the ratings. That’s not what Idol is about. Never has been. Apparently the only people who don’t understand that are the very people responsible for the show. (Note to Fox: Millennials, an important demographic for your network, just don’t play that way. See this week’s cover story in Time magazine for the full explanation.)

From where I sat, Jackson was his usual self, pumping infectious energy into each round without necessarily offering valuable guidance or criticism. Urban was utterly charming and in many ways became the heart of the show. Minaj was often a firecracker, but when she drilled right into the truth of the moment she became the strongest judge on Idol since the formidable Simon Cowell, and her heartfelt support of Glover and Harrison, two young women who have overcome great obstacles in their lives, was often very moving. Carey was probably the weak link because she generally took too long to make her points or simply talked too much without saying much at all. But if you really paid close attention to her, without being distracted by her rambling commentary or her revealing attire, every now and then she would offer tidbits of advice and make keen observations that could only come from a performer of her outsize accomplishments. Perhaps more than any other judge in the history of Idol this woman knows music and, more importantly, knows how to craft a sensational, superstar performance. Unfortunately she doesn’t know how to think on her feet — or maybe I should say in her seat.

Regardless, season twelve will be remembered not for Glover’s marvelous victory or her stirring rendition of Somewhere (above) during the competition show with the final three, which had to be one of the most majestic performances in the history of this program, or for the fact that the top five finalists were all young women who truly deserved to be there. Rather, it will be remembered for all of the mistakes the people in charge insisted on making despite repeated warnings and objections from this critic and many others.

They insisted on filling the judges’ table with giant stars rather than lesser-known performers and music industry professionals. They made the voting system too wild and crazy. (It really should go back to phone calls and texting only, perhaps with a strict one vote per number policy.) They insisted on reverting to the four-judge format, which sorely damaged the show several years ago when the table consisted of Mr. Cowell, Mr. Jackson, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres. (The only talent show that benefits from having a quartet of judges is NBC’s The Voice, which was built from the bottom up as a showcase for four music superstars who for much of the season are at the mercy of the contestants.)

The Idol brain trust also insisted on making everything about the production bigger and better and more dazzling (maybe because it worked so well for The X Factor). Too many things about the show seemed to have been designed to thrill the audience in the studio rather than entertain the folks at home, from all those annoying kids packed in front of the stage, where they distract performer, viewer and judge alike, to the banishment during the all-important top ten reveal show of the top twenty contestants to a dingy little room backstage, where we watched as they nervously waited for Seacrest to stroll in from time to time and quietly identify another finalist. The big surge of excitement that typically comes with Seacrest calling out the name of each finalist was reserved for the studio audience, as if that group mattered more than the millions of people Fox needed to support the show.

Given that its ratings went into a well-documented dive this season, the future of Idol will be the biggest story in television programming this fall, far eclipsing anything that’s said about any of the networks’ new season shows or anything that may happen on The Voice. I’ve been told that all four judges are leaving. (We know that Jackson is already gone, but there has been no official confirmation as to the status of Urban, Minaj and Carey.) I have also learned that the show will likely revert to the three-judge format. If all three seats are indeed open, there are many desirable potential candidates who could fill them.

I’d love to see former X Factor judge and mentor L.A. Reid move to the Idol table. It would be a real treat to see Paula Abdul back where she belongs. Another country singer would make sense, given the strength Idol has in that genre. (That person wouldn’t have to be a superstar; a charismatic up-and-comer would be better.)

And how about a former Idol contestant who didn’t win but was popular with viewers? Adam Lambert certainly tops that list, but I could also see Justin Guarini, Kimberly Locke or Kellie Pickler (right) — a delight this season on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars — rise to the challenge.

I think my first choice would be Cheryl Cole, who was oddly dropped from The X Factor at the top of its first season despite having impressed critics and viewers alike. Also, I continue to hold out hope that the smart and personable Gareth Malone, host of the BBC talent mentoring series The Choir, an Americanized version of which will soon debut on USA Network, might one day join Idol. I have long felt that he would be an ideal judge.

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