Which one is the bigger television story this week: the announcement of the nominees for the 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, or the latest round of entertaining turmoil that has engulfed the medium’s most important show, “American Idol”?
I’ll go with “Idol,” because as excited as media mavens will be during the next two months about this year’s Emmy competition, “Idol” matters more to the audience, its network and all of broadcast television. Even with its recurring problems – and even in its weakest periods – “Idol” remains an unparalleled achievement and, to date, the most important show of this new millennium. (A note on that: “Idol” might still be the biggest and brightest competition show on television, but I think the best TV talent show right now is Oxygen’s “The Glee Project,” as emotionally engaging and heartfelt a competition program as one is likely to find. The failure of voting members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to honor it with an Emmy nomination is depressing, to say the least.)
Anyway, with Steven Tyler officially out, and (as of this writing) Jennifer Lopez strongly rumored to be out and (also as of this writing) Randy Jackson rumored to be eyeing the door as well, what are executives at Fox and FremantleMedia to do to keep their formidable franchise intact? Well, I’ll believe that Jackson is gone from the judges’ table only when Fox makes it official, because I can’t imagine why he would leave one of the best and most lucrative jobs on television. But if he goes – or even if he doesn’t – it would seem that controversial “Idol” mentor Jimmy Iovine would be an ideal choice to become the new Simon Cowell, a course-correction of which the softer and sweeter “Idol” of the Tyler-Lopez years is in dire need.
I understand that Fox is fixated on finding big-name stars to fill those judges’ seats, and that Mariah Carey is at the top of their wish list. (We’ll find out more on Monday when Fox executives meet with the Television Critics Association to discuss their plans for the 2012-13 season.) I have never been a fan of this approach. I thought it was a mistake when Fox added Ellen DeGeneres to the judges’ table three years ago – and we all remember how that played out. Similarly, I wasn’t happy about Tyler and Lopez joining this show, because I felt that their combined star power would outshine the contestants – and “Idol” should always be about the kids first.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Tyler and Lopez in their first season, even if the depth of their critical prowess was revealed to be not all that deep. They were lively and entertaining and offered thoughtful encouragement to all. But Tyler seemed to lose steam at some point during their second season, and Lopez with all of her other projects was so fantastically overexposed in the media and marketing landscape that there was no longer anything special about seeing her on the show.
Regarding the current buzz, I really like the idea of a former “Idol” contestant – someone in whom the “Idol” audience is (or was) already invested – coming on board as a judge. There are so many good choices: Justin Guarini and Tamyra Gray from season one, Kimberly Caldwell and Josh Gracin from season two, Constantine Maroulis and Bo Bice from season four, Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler from season five and Adam Lambert from season eight are a few that come immediately to mind. (I can’t imagine any of “Idol’s” superstar alumni – Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry – wanting the gig.)
Regardless, the people in charge of “Idol” on every level ought to be focusing on finding charismatic judges who have something significant to offer and genuine chemistry with each other. They don’t have to be well known. Remember, nobody had heard of Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson when “Idol” debuted, and many people thought Paula Abdul’s career was behind her. Let the “Idol” magic work without forcing it – for judges and contestants alike.
As for that Emmy magic, it’s nice to see so many new names and shows included among the nominees in the series categories. I’m somewhat shocked that CBS’ “The Good Wife” was pushed out of the Outstanding Drama Series category, and that Kelsey Grammer of Starz’ “Boss” and Timothy Olyphant of FX’s “Justified” aren’t among the nominees for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. It’s a nice surprise to see Jared Harris of AMC’s “Mad Men” among the nominees for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series and Anna Gunn of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” finally recognized as a nominee for Outstanding Supporting Actress.
There are no real upsets in the comedy series categories, except perhaps the exclusions of FX’s “Louie” and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” from the Outstanding Comedy Series nominees and Laura Dern of HBO’s “Enlightened” from the very crowded Outstanding Lead Actress group. Overall the Academy showed big love for AMC’s “Mad Men” (17 nominations), which is as it should be; PBS’ “Downton Abbey” (16 nominations), which is grand, and FX’s “American Horror Story” (17 nominations), which is somewhat jarring, given how uneven its storytelling and acting were throughout.