By Ronnie Gill
If this season's American Idol is turning into a circus, then we have to assume that Nigel Lythgoe is its ringmaster.
It is easy to say, without hyperbole, that Thursday night's results show was the most bizarrely fascinating in Idol's 10-season history. A foreteller of the evening's events was executive producer and showrunner Nigel Lythgoe's late-morning tweet, "#Spoiler Alert: Shocking #AmericanIdol news tonight!!!"
That evening's elimination round was a pivotal one. It would determine who would make Idol's summer tour. If you can't win the competition, this is the second-best prize. It means a nice chunk of income for the performers as well as priceless exposure, which can result in a recording contract.
Speculation ran rampant among fans who saw or heard of the Twitter message. Was it a stunt? Many took it to mean that one of the competition's front-runners was about to land in the Bottom 3 or even be eliminated.
Some, including myself, believed it was related to Casey Abrams, a contestant who is afflicted with ulcerative colitis. Abrams, a possible favorite of Lythgoe whom he has tweeted about, had been hospitalized at least twice within the month, needing transfusions because of internal bleeding. Was he sick again? Was he going to bow out? Would they eliminate him because they felt he wasn't well enough to go on tour?
As it turned out, Abrams received the least amount of votes after singing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on Wednesday's Motown-themed performance show. But that was only the beginning of the capper of an already squirrelly show.
Along with the expected elements of the results show -- the Ford music video, film clips of Marc Anthony mentoring the contestants, and performances by Sugarland and Jennifer Hudson, whom Ryan Seacrest introduced as "our only Idol winner with an Oscar" (er, Ryan, she actually came in seventh in Season 3) -- there were unannounced appearances by Stevie Wonder, who sang "Happy Birthday" to Steven Tyler, and Hulk Hogan, who first assisted Seacrest in delivering voting results to Paul McDonald and James Durbin, and then faux sucker-punched Seacrest in the face, causing him to faux stumble headfirst into the audience.
At show's end, Abrams was left standing onstage, ready to "sing for his life." He faced either winning the judges' one-time-a-season save or being eliminated. For his song, he chose the ironically titled "I Don't Need No Doctor" (it was revealed by TMZ after the fact that Abrams had received yet another transfusion that very morning).
About 20 seconds into his performance, Seacrest ran onto the stage frantically waving his arms and stopped the music. Judge Randy Jackson told Abrams, "We know who you are, Casey. We don't need you to sing anymore, do we, Steven?" Tyler said, "Yeah, this is crazy wrong. We made a decision here to keep you on." Seacrest screamed, "They're using the one save for Casey Abrams!" as the audience went wild. An emotionally overcome and ashen Abrams first looked as if he was going to vomit, then with a hand to his chest looked like he was having a heart attack. Fox had to bleep him repeatedly saying "Oh, my f------ god."
He then approached the judges saying, "Are you kidding? Are you kidding? . . . Why did you do this for me? . . . I can't believe it, oh my god, I can't believe it, I can't believe it." With a Roman-arena feel, the crowd began to chant, "CASEY! CASEY! CASEY!" as Abrams went to hug Seacrest and literally collapsed -- sliding down Seacrest's legs -- to the floor. He sat for a second, stood, paced, then dashed offstage into the audience to hug his mother. Returning to the stage, he could barely speak.
Seacrest ended the show with bad and good news: Two contestants will be eliminated in the next results show, but "it had been predetermined, should something like this occur, all 11 will go out on tour!" Huge group hug, cue closing credits.
(TMZ reported that Abrams "was so overwrought with emotion after the show, he began hyperventilating and then fell to the floor in the hallway" and that "staffers helped Casey up and put him in a chair so he could calm down.")
If that show spelled drama with a capital D, then we give credit to Lythgoe for being a master at how to draw an audience back to an aging diva. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Thursday's show averaged a 6.2 rating in the highly desirable 18-49 demographic, with 22.4 million viewers overall. That was a 9 percent increase in the age demographic week-to-week and a 6 percent increase in total viewers. The show's ratings spiked in the last half-hour, as the audience swelled to see who got booted, growing 21 percent for the age demographic and 17 percent in overall viewers.
Although Idol is still the top-rated TV series in the United States, it loses some of its numbers each year. Perhaps smelling blood, NBC is aggressively advertising its new singing competition The Voice, launching April 26 with host Carson Daly and big-name "mentors" Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Cee Lo Green (Forget You) and Blake Shelton. In the fall, executive producer Simon Cowell transports The X Factor, the British show that introduced Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Olly Murs, among others, via Fox to our shores. The former Idol judge, as well as renowned music producer L.A. Reid and two others to be announced soon, will serve as that show's judges. (Supposedly former Idol judge and Cowell foil Paula Abdul is still in the running.)
So it is more important than ever for American Idol to return to its A-game, and Lythgoe appears to be the person most suited to take it there. An original executive producer of Idol, Lythgoe returned for the show's 10th season after a two-year absence ostensibly to concentrate on his first and true love -- dance. He is executive producer and head judge on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. But according to the Los Angeles Times, "sources at the time [of Lythgoe's leaving Idol] said that friction with Cowell behind the scenes was the primary reason for his departure."
In his absence, Idol floundered. The remaining executive producers added a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, for Season 8, a move Lythgoe disliked. He told the New York Post, "I don't like fourth judges. I think once you've been told 'You suck,' you don't need to be told another three times."
At the end of that season, the show lost Paula Abdul, when she failed to reach terms on a new contract. At the time, Lythgoe told Hollywood Outbreak, "I'm very sad. I think Paula is an integral part of American Idol . . . and when the history books are written, Randy, Paula and Simon are the historic trio of judges. . . . She for me is the heart of American Idol. She recognized that these kids were performing their best, and, you know, when other people who hadn't been performers, like Simon, would cut their legs from underneath them, she was there to put them back together and pick them up and dust them off. And I do hope whoever replaces Paula has the ability to understand these kids and, you know, praise them. I don't mind criticizing them, as long as you rebuild them."
Paula was replaced by Ellen DeGeneres, a choice that seemingly pleased Lythgoe. After all, she had been a guest judge on SYTYCD the previous fall. He spoke glowingly of her hire, telling Entertainment Weekly, "Ellen will be that judge who comes at it from a fan perspective. She loves music and she will be able to speak about what people will like and what would sound good on the radio. And she's funny. And I also think she is strong enough to keep Simon in his place, which I am always worried about."
Lythgoe's faith in DeGeneres' strength might have been misplaced. Or was there something else at play? When she resigned at the end of Season 9, a year before her contract expired, she claimed it wasn't a good fit. Lythgoe blamed Cowell, telling Deadline.com, "I think there's a place for Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol. And that is being the voice of the people. She wasn't given a fair opportunity to serve that function. Ellen was constantly apologizing and overwhelmed, I think, by Simon."
Perhaps that's a bit disingenuous on Lythgoe's part. After all, DeGeneres announced her resignation on July 29, 2010. Cowell had already left the show, as planned, in May, at the end of the Season 9. And three days prior to DeGeneres' resignation, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lythgoe was in negotiations to return to the show. Shouldn't that have been bliss for both DeGeneres and Lythgoe? Perhaps not.
In April, referring to Cowell's imminent departure, Lythgoe told Zap2it.com, that he thought the show should do a major overhaul of the judges table. "I would replace the entire judging panel. I don't think it really works replacing one person. They don't have a great deal of chemistry at the moment. Ryan and Simon have fallen out. It's uncomfortable to watch. Ellen hasn't worked out as well as we would have hoped." Hmmm.
Lythgoe also told the website that he favored returning to a three-judge panel. His preferences? Two new names and one old name -- but not Randy Jackson's. His picks? "Elton John, Usher and Paula Abdul," Lythgoe said.
In June, he told the Canadian Press, "It's never been my opinion that four judges work on that program because it should be about the talent. The team took their eye off the ball a little bit and was more worried about the judges and what was happening with them than it was regarding the talent last year. It became about Kara joining and making the fourth judge, Paula leaving, Ellen joining, and Simon leaving, and much more about them and concentrating on that than on the talent that they were finding."
It appears that Lythgoe had a lot to say about how he would revamp the faltering series -- and his former colleagues decided to take him up on it. Variety said, "Lythgoe's hire was made by 19 Entertainment owner CKX to serve as 19's and exec producer Simon Fuller's day-to-day eyes and ears on the show. 19 was said to be concerned that it didn't have a dedicated EP on the show -- hence the return of longtime Fuller collaborator Lythgoe."
Two Lythgoe-less Idol seasons resulted in possibly the dullest groups of contestants ever. Their winners, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze, have the dubious distinction of producing the worst-selling premiere albums of anyone who has ever won the Idol title.
Is it just coincidence that Lythgoe's return coincides with some of the best contestants the show has ever found? We think not. There are probably at least three or four in this year's group alone -- James Durbin, Pia Toscano, Scotty McCreery and Casey Abrams -- who could have won the title in almost any other season. On top on that, there are no real stinkers in the entire Top 13. Sure, some of the group is merely mediocre, but mediocre was pretty much the best we got the past two seasons, with rare exceptions (Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox come to mind).
We still aren't sure that Lythgoe has found his judging dream team. The mix of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson leaves a lot to be desired. But he has given us some great singers this season, and for that we're grateful. Now that he's mixing some crazy into the pot, as Tyler might say, we think that Lythgoe is giving us a lot to look forward to.