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Performance Anxiety 


Published June 11, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

Tell me, are you as tired of reality TV as I am? I'm bone-weary of shows about people trying to survive in uncivilized places. Bored out of my gourd with shows about home makeovers. I've OD'd on shows in which strangers meet and get married within a matter of on-air hours, and I am this close to being clinically depressed about the medium's most out-of-control new obsession: the talent show.

Am I the only one in the hemisphere who thought this year's "American Idol" would never end? Before they could be eliminated in competition, something like half the second season's contestants were given the boot, thanks to the revelation of personal scandals and mile-long rap sheets. As a result, the few remaining competitors were called upon to fill in the time for what seemed like months. The program quickly degenerated into an almost surprise-free contest -- either Clay Aiken or Ruben Studdard clearly was destined for victory from the start.

Producers of the show tried to compensate for its lack of suspense with a shameless parade of has-been judges (a low point had aging popster Neil Sedaka calling Clay "ear-delicious") and promotions for "American Idol" product that included recordings made by last year's final two and their upcoming big-screen debacle From Justin to Kelly.

By its mid-point, season deux was watchable less for any competition between criminals than for the curious cat fight that erupted between host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon "Brutally Honest" Cowel. I think it's safe to say a network juggernaut has lost sight of its mission when the search for tomorrow's megastars takes a back seat to verbal bitchslaps.

As dopey, vacuous and blatantly self-promoting as "American Idol" proved to be, the damn thing is also a phenomenal success. And you know what phenomenal success brings: shameless imitation.

On paper, "Star Search" would appear to be the forerunner of "AI" and not its bad copy. In reality, though, the present-day CBS incarnation bears minimal resemblance to the cathode competition hosted during the '80s by Ed McMahon. For one thing, it's hosted now by Arsenio Hall, one of the few people alive with even less talent than the former "Tonight Show" co-host. For another, "Search" now features an "AI"-style panel of judges. Regulars include Ben Stein, Frank Zappa's son Ahmet, who grows on you after a while, and Naomi Judd. She grows on you, too, but more like a persistent fungal infection.

The most grating aspect of the program, though, has to be its master of ceremonies. Hall actually appears to believe that viewers are endlessly entertained when, prior to announcing the results of their votes, he hollers, "Hit me with those digits!" Though this catchphrase is undoubtedly the former talk-show host's most significant contribution to American culture, it's as tiresome as nearly everything else on this show.

In a rational world, "Star Search" would have been enough to put the brakes on the talent-show pile-up. But we don't live in that sort of world. Ours is one in which networks reap eye-popping profits by offering programming that costs little to produce, since frills such as scripts, locations and, you know, professional entertainers have been eliminated.

In this world, one apparently can't have too much of a tedious thing, so the small screen has become home to even more competitions. Already on the air, for example: "All-American Girl," a show combining elements of beauty and talent contests while offering participants "a shot at entering their field of choice." If for no other reason, the ABC production deserves a place in the record books for coming up with the Vaguest Grand Prize in Broadcast History.

Looking for the next Garth Brooks? You are? Seriously? Well, then, you'll want to tune into the USA Network Saturday evenings at 10. That's where you'll find "Nashville Star," which is pretty much a "Country Western Idol" in which finalists compete for a Sony recording contract.

Coming soon to Tuesdays at 8, Fox's own shameless imitation of "American Idol" is "American Juniors." The new broadcast will be hosted by "AI" front man Ryan Seacrest and is intended, I guess, to fill the void when it comes to programs looking at real-life stage parents who strong-arm their offspring into doomed quests for public approval. I wonder whether this Fox production will have a brutally honest judge, too. Contestants might burst into tears.

NBC has to be the network that's gone most berserk with this talent-show thing. The Peacock recently jumped on the bandwagon with no fewer than four -- count 'em, four -- new "AI" imitations. "Idol" showcases performers in the 16-24 age range. Determined to storm every unclaimed demographic beachhead still up for grabs, NBC has also launched its own pint-sized competition, "America's Most Talented Kid," as well as "Second Chance: America's Most Talented Senior." I used to think there was nothing sadder than the sight of scared little kids belting out show tunes on national TV. That was before anyone thought of letting old people do it, too.

I'm not kidding. "Senior" is one of the sorriest things I've ever seen. Between the agony I experienced watching and the embarrassment I felt on behalf of virtually every participant, I was emotionally spent by the time the show was over. Airing Sundays at 8, "Senior" has all the hallmarks of a project conceived and rushed into production by sadistic former nursing-home personnel. God did not intend for grannies to rap.

"Last Comic Standing" debuted June 10th and is essentially "American Idol" for Seinfeld wanna-bes. That's in contrast to "Fame," which is essentially "American Idol," period. The show, on Wednesdays at 8, is appalling on a "variety" of fronts. Remember Fame, the movie? And "Fame," the song? Well, this is "Fame," the derivative television show. Network execs have hauled '80s choreographer Debbie Allen out of mothballs to host.

To behold the "AI"-based auditions, elimination process, judging and cookie-cutter performances, you might regard the spectacle as just another rip-off. It is that, of course, but so much more: a truly horrible TV show and a cautionary tale for our time all wrapped into one. Why? Because Allen's co-host is (drum roll) none other than Joey Fatone. That's right, a member of 'N Sync is playing second banana to a dimly remembered artifact of the post-disco era!

Everybody and his grandmother are falling all over themselves to grasp what has come to pass for celebrity, and all you have to do to confirm how meaningless and illusory corporate stardom has become is tune into this celebration of it. Tune in and witness how far and how fast this real-life American idol has fallen. Everyone's going to be famous for 15 minutes anyway. What good is star-making machinery if all it gets you is a few extra seconds and a mortifying gig?

Marshall McLuhan, I mean, Madonna summed it up best in an interview with the British press earlier this spring. "I arrived at a different time," the deep-thinking diva reflected, "before the time of Svengalis holding talent searches. Everything's so homogenized now. I really don't know where we're going with the world."

You know Western culture has gone off the deep end when the Material Girl is worried that things have gone too far. But she's got a point. The irony of this whole talent show frenzy is that it has so little to do with talent. These programs aren't looking for gifted, creative artists. They're looking for unknown people who do convincing impressions of well-known people. There's nothing original about that.

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About The Author

Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak is a film reviewer for Seven Days.


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