723rd 11th season of Fox's gargantuan competition show American Idol begins, and though many have abandoned the show over the years — done in by DeWyze, horrified by Hicks, pining for Paula — some of us are still soldiering on in the war march, destination unknown, tired and broken down, but still dedicated to the cause. Why is that?
Like, it's actually exciting that the show is coming back tonight, even though it's just a raggedy, annoying audition episode. It's fun knowing that we will be doing the long slog until spring. Sure it's difficult and tiring and we will lose friends, lovers, colleagues, family along the way, but we, the true supporters, will make it to the end. That is likely the strongest hook of this show, the sense of having had the strength and fortitude to get through something rather big. If all the Harry Potter books were only 200 pages long, they just wouldn't have had that same kind of epic, mountain-climbing scope to them. We want and need them to be 900 pages, just like we need Idol to dominate half of our year every season. It's a crucial, decade-old part of this cruel pop culture life we've chosen to lead. It's just part of the fabric. Though, really, it shouldn't be anymore.
Watching Idol used to be a no-brainer. Everyone was talking about it — even people who claimed to hate it were talking about it. It was the early aughts and reality TV was just kicking into high gear (it's only been that long) and here was a fresh new thing, a crazy idea that a pop star could be created in a gleefully synthetic manner. (Well, a crazy idea to us anyway; the show, like so much else now, was an overseas import.) So yes, those first few seasons, with Kelly and Clay and Carrie, they were absolute water-cooler. We even had "artsy" seasons with "artsy" contestants, "different" people like Fantasia Barrino and, shock of shocks! a rocker dude on Idol!, Bo Bice. The show had a weird amount, a surprising amount, of texture to it and had created at least two bonafide superstars in Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Around the end of that fourth season, when Underwood overcame, the show was at its shimmering peak. It was a great glowing orb at its zenith in the sky.
But then, like Ryan Seacrest's New Year's Eve ball must do each year, the show dropped. What happened? Well, it was then that we entered the fallow years of Taylor Hicks and Jordin Sparks and David Cook. And those were the winners! Those people. There were weeks and weeks of people even more dud-like than them. (Though, granted, there were also of course far more exciting people who got voted off too early for whatever reason.) After Cook's season, the seventh, it felt like a breaking point had been reached. This was it. We were done. Though watching Cook and little Davy Archuleta and dreadlocked Jason Castro do battle had been perfectly distracting, the ultimate five-month commitment to this most arduous of series just didn't feel worth it. We were done. No more. Ratings were slipping, popular buzz had died down to almost mere cult-status level, and most importantly it just didn't feel as fun anymore. Goodbye, Idol!
Though, of course, as always, we decided to give it one more season, one more go. Just one more fix and then yes, A&E and weeping friends and family, we'll get on that plane and go wherever it takes us. We just had to get the shakes off. But then, oh dear, what season did that turn out to be? The great gay gliterry gadzooks of Adam Lambert. The triangle-mouthed croon-doggin' of Kris Allen. Oh it was so fun to hate them or love them (and always hate Danny Gokey). And there was a true deserver, fiery-haired Allison Iraheta, to frustratedly support. We could yell at the judges (Paula's last season! Kara's first, ugh) for all their unfair judging and mourn for the old pure days of Clarkson while still secretly reveling in all this new horror. The show was different, yes, much more a collection of genre people than a bunch of bland blank canvases, but it was still just as entertaining. Not as culturally significant (y'know, relatively speaking of general cultural significance) for sure, but nonetheless completely absorbing. We complained the whole way, but in the end it was fun. Phew! Was Idol saved?
No! This was just the sweet death rattle, wasn't it? This deceptively entertaining Season 8. Because the subsequent two, with their Paulalessness and Kara bumbling and Simon departing and Lee DeWyzing and Scotty side-singing, were such spluttery bores, weren't they? And yet we still watched! Or at least some of us did. And plan to watch this season! Season 8 was a cruel booster shot, something that gave us the will and means to carry on even though we really shouldn't want to. There's nothing concrete that tells us that Season 11 will be worth watching, and yet here we are lining up for it. That is the truly strange and beguiling and indefinable Idol dark magick. That it comes rushing at us in January and then is loud and crashes and booms and clunks and drags us down with it all the way to the bitter, blistered ending in May and we are so tired of it by then that we actively hate it, would sooner watch an episode, a whole stinking festering episode!, of The X Factor than watch one more minute of dimple-simp Ryan Seacrest shining his pomade glow at a bunch of chunky teenagers. Ugh, how awful! And yet then... Then 'round about December, they show that first brief promo ad for the next season and some small black kraken is released within us, a switch is flipped, a sounding call undetected by the human ear is heeded. Idol begins calling us back, and because they won us over so easily all those years ago and then fed us their slow and addictive poison with every subsequent season, we are powerless to do anything but dash ourselves on those same old rocks all over again. And when it's all over, though we've been doing nothing but sitting on the couch with wine dribbling out of our mouths for five months, we will feel an actual, physical sense of accomplishment.
Idol need not fear The Voice, which will be competing against it on NBC this season. Nor needed it have feared Simon Cowell's unpleasant autumn endeavor The X Factor. Because, ultimately, why would we continue to smoke the cheap stuff when the premium grade — the original, the non-gimmicky, the pure white product — is right there, waiting for us with its sparkly January smile? That come hither glint that says "Hey, pull up a chair, we've missed you so much." And we can't help but respond, despite knowing we should know better, after all these years, "Hey. I've missed you too."
(This is all a long-winded way of saying that we're going to be recapping this season here on The Atlantic Wire. So please join us every Thursday and Friday morning when we'll share in all this wonderful misery together.)