I hate American Idol. I want to get that right out of the way up front to be clear that I don't have some obsession or even passing general interest in talent competitions that air on TV. Over the years, I've never really cared for any of them for numerous reasons, the most significant of which is that they are rarely about who has the most talent but rather about who can win a popularity contest. Meritocracies, for the most part, these are not.
But, Sunday night, I flipped on America's Got Talent to watch Houston's favorite rollerblade dancer take his turn in front of the camera and the judges. After about 40 minutes, Juan Carlos had rolled his happy self off the stage, but I strangely wanted to keep watching. My wife did as well. Then, during an ad for The Voice showing off shiny new judges Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams, I remembered there might actually be two talent shows on TV I kinda like and I began to see similarities between the two.
And make no mistake, there are things I despise about them too like how they run roughshod over auditions, their attempts to constantly pull at heartstrings with practically manufactured stories and way too much face time for the stars. But what AGT and The Voice also manage to do is keep me entertained and I think I've figured out why.
They don't promise hyper success.
The very name American Idol connotes a level of fame and fortune that has rarely been achieved by any of it's contestants and winners, yet the constant mantra of "finding a star" is repeated over and over. Neither AGT nor The Voice do that. Most of the acts that grace the AGT audition stage are quite understated in their desires -- outside the grand prize, of course. Few imagine a career as the next mega celebrity instead just wanting a regular gig in Vegas or Branson.
The same goes for The Voice, where it is literally all about a contestant's ability to sing and capture a moment. Sure, they would all love to find big time success if they can, but, and maybe I'm reading more into it than I should, they sure seem more realistic about their chances than the starstruck Idol hopefuls.
They take all comers.
One of the most refreshing things about The Voice is the fact that they blindly sample singers initially. All they get to do is listen, the way it used to be before the dawn of MTV. Who cares if the singer is fat or old or weird looking? This isn't about watching music, but about hearing it. AGT takes this to the extreme pitting jugglers and dancers against singers and magicians. It's part sideshow, part variety show.
The advantage this gives both programs is a certain freshness and originality that cannot be matched by AI. Who wouldn't want to watch a contortionist followed by a 12-year-old girl who sounds like a black gospel singer? Why wouldn't you turn that chair around when you heard a pitch perfect voice, even if it is attached to a 50-year-old truck driver? It makes for compelling TV and genuinely interesting story lines.
It's ultimately about being really good at one thing.
The struggle I've always had with Idol is that they are concerned with how someone will represent the idea of being a star. It is the exact opposite of ability let alone artistic merit. But, both AGT and The Voice are about honing that one ability and making it shine. Whether you sing or throw knives or try daredevil stunts, it makes no difference if you are really, really good at it and if that talent translates into excitement for those watching.
In this case, it is talent first, entertainment second. Neither discount the importance of having charisma and being fun to watch, but skill is not minimized simply because someone has a better smile or the fans think he's cute.
Their personalities are compelling...and kinda weird.
Very few media personalities have ever been as controversial or as interesting as Howard Stern, and so much of that is owed to his insatiable curiosity and complete lack of inhibition when it comes to pursuing that curiosity. Add Howie Mandel, who no one could have guessed was such a freak with his purposeful hairlessness and extreme germ phobia, and that makes for some really intriguing moments at the judge's table and behind the scenes.
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And like them or not, nothing is quite as ridiculous as seeing Blake Shelton and Adam Levine bicker. When Cee Lo and Christina Aguilera were sharing the stage, it was even more bizarre. I can see Stefani bringing a bit of the rocker chick and Williams will absolutely send the cumulative talent level of the panel through the roof. This while Simon Cowell's schtick grows more tired by the moment and J Lo tries to pretend she can sing. And if you don't think Nick Cannon is greater than Ryan Seacrest, well then I just can't help you.
They are honest about their objectives.
More than anything else, I appreciate how honest both shows are about what they are and what they want. Stern is particularly straightforward in his assessments as is Levine. I may not always agree with what they think, but I respect their decisions and the way they approach them.
With Idol, I always felt there was an agenda on the part of judges and it was sometimes (if not always) rooted in ratings rather than an honest opinion about the merits of the talent they were judging. Of course, that is the point of the show, to score points for the network and its stars, but at least I prefer when the spotlight is more focused on the contestants and less on the critics.