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'American Idol' In a Tailspin? After Day One, Too Early to Tell
January 20, 2011  | By David Bianculli

The newly revamped American Idol on Fox returned this week, with a heavily edited recap of mass auditions in New Jersey (Wednesday) and New Orleans (Thursday). We won't know the true strengths and weaknesses of the new judges' lineup until the live shows begin. In the meantime, if the show's producers didn't pull out all the stops on day one, they sure did pull out all the old tricks.

Formerly homeless twin brothers! Kosovo refugee! Daughter of doo-wop cancer dad!

What, no conjoined twins singing harmony?...

Season 10 of American Idol was front-loaded with the sorts of inspirational stories that are accompanied by weepy music -- and, on at least one occasion, by a weepy Ryan Seacrest. These human-interest stories are good enough, on every occasion, to get the young singers to the Hollywood round. But for most, if not all, that's where the American dream will be followed by an American wake-up call.


Most of these stories were saved for the ends of each audition day, to let both the judges and the program leave on a high note. That's an emotional high note, not necessarily a musical one.

Three quick examples, from the opening New Jersey show:

Melinda Ademi, from Yonkers, is 16. She doesn't have a discernible accent, not even a Yonkers one, but her parents, from Bosnia, tell in broken English about being war refugees, and fleeing for their lives to the United States. Giving their daughter a better, safer life is all they desire -- and if her dreams are fulfilled, so are theirs.


Travis Orlando, also 16, is from the Bronx. He and his twin brother had to spend a few years at a shelter, along with their parents, because of hard times. At the audition, Travis performed. His brother did not, and had no desire to -- but afterward, the whole family was called in.

Judges Randy Jackson, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez informed Travis he had made the cut, and the music swelled. Travis hugged his brother and wept as mom looked on, proudly, and also weeping.

Finally, there was Brielle von Hugel -- like the other heartstring-pullers, a sweet 16 -- who talked of acquiring her love of music from her dad, a former doo-wop singer.


Just before she became old enough to audition for American Idol, dad got throat cancer, and didn't know if he'd live to see her audition, much less succeed. He made it through his cancer treatment, and accompanied her to the tryouts. Needless to say, he was called into the room as well -- and not to hear that she'd been turned down.

Is all of this manipulative, obvious and predictable? Yes. Does it work. Yes, mostly. But does it mean anything in the long run? Based on the level of talent the young singers displayed on day one, no.

But this season, American Idol the TV show, like each contestant, has to focus on one round at a time.

For round one, what used to drive the narratives were the inspirational stories and obvious talents on the one end, and Simon Cowell's caustic put-downs of awful contestants on the other. For season ten, we don't have Cowell, and have witnessed precious few insults.

No wonder the "American dream" stories are so prevalent. For now, they're the only strength the show has.

[For a full review of the first night of this year's American Idol, see TVWW corespondent Ronnie Gill's report in ALTERED REALITY.]

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