The Best and Worst of American Idol Seasons 1-4 Review

“I don’t mean to be rude but this is quite possibly the worst DVD I have ever seen in my life.” James says what he thinks about this compiliation disk of America’s favourite talent show and asks the question: Who are the real winners?

As much as we might want to, I don’t think it’s really fair to blame most of the problems of today’s society on Hear’Say. Although it would be nice to point the finger at the winners of Popstars for the many ills of modern living, ultimately it would be very hard to justify saying, for example, that the current problems in the Home Office were down to Kym Marsh’s ineptitude, or that President Bush was only elected twice because Myleene Klaas made a mess of things, or that England won’t win the World Cup because of that bloke that looked like Shrek – well, at least not that bloke who looks like Shrek. It’s disappointing, but something we just have to accept. Even the one bane of life today that can be placed squarely at their door – the advent of all the Popstars spin-offs – isn’t really down to them personally. Any five people who found themselves winners on that show (even Darius) would have had a similar level of success. No, the real responsibility lies with the Simons Fuller and Jones (the former manager of such groups as the Spice Girls and S Club 7, the latter a producer at Thames Television) who, together with Popstars director and star “Nasty” Nigel Lithgow and Simon Cowell, an executive at BMG, Sony’s record label, saw the band’s huge (if amusingly brief) commercial success and realised that here was a format ripe for exploitation. They figured that, with a little bit of tweaking (most notably bringing in that all-important factor of audience participation that Big Brother had shown was crucial in making viewers feel they were directly involved with the show) they had a show that could be more lucrative than they’d ever dared imagine was possible. And we’ve been stuck with the shows ever since. Popstars in 2000 begat Pop Idol (the real breakthrough) in 2001, which then crossed the Atlantic to become American Idol, and travelled to other countries to become Canadian Idol and Indian Idol and Australian Idol and so on and so on all over the world. Even when Britain seemed to grow bored with the format – the second series of UK Idol didn’t perform nearly as well ratings-wise as the first – the format was tweaked slightly and renamed The X Factor and became a huge hit all over again.

As with anything to do with popular media, the one place above all else it pays to have a hit is in America, and American Idol has shown that, swiftly growing to be the most successful version of the franchise. For those lucky few that have never seen the show (and really, if you haven’t, run now quickly, before you get suckered in) the setup is simple. Three celebrity judges – Simon Cowell (the critical one), Paula Abdul (the encouraging one) and Randy Jackson (the jolly yet serious one) – audition thousands of potential “American Idols”, whittling down the candidates until they end up with a certain number, usually around thirty, inviting viewers along the way to chortle at the more incompetent of those who auditions. Those thirty are then further culled to between ten and twelve, who then perform weekly in a live show. Viewers vote by telephone and text whom they wish to remain, and week-by-week singers are eliminated until the Grand Finale when the winner is crowned. During these live shows the judges have no actual power to decide the outcome (not officially, anyway) but still give their opinions after each performance, and there’s generally a lot of cheering and whooping for each singer, no matter how terrible they are, and then crying and hugging when one of them is evicted. It’s a big, brassy show, and it’s huge.

It’s also a big con. It has admittedly a brilliant format, but also a very calculating one, and ultimately American Idol is nothing more than a very expensive pantomime. In Cowell there is the villain to be booed and hissed whenever he makes an appearance on stage, there’s Abdul as a Fairy Godmother who gives constant hope and encouragement to her charges, there’s the comic relief of the early rounds in which clowns unknowingly put themselves forward for the audience to ridicule and laugh at, while at the centre of the drama are the protagonists, the Dick Whittingtons, who make their way to London (or, in this case, Hollywood) to seek fortune and fortune, and the Princesses, trapped in the tower of their mundane existence, staring out of their window at the world of celebrity and sighing, hoping some bright prince will come along and whisk them away to the bright lights and untold freedom. Although there has never been a place in American culture for panto, it’s ironic that one of their biggest shows reflects so exactly the narrative (which in any case they adapted for their own use in the mythology of the American Dream) but there’s one crucial difference; this pantomime extravagance has a subtext of deep, almost unpleasant cynicism running through it, pervading its apparently happy-clappy existence at every turn. From the first it was a format designed to make money for its creators, initially through the manufacture and then manipulation of a new star, and then, once the show was a hit, from the exploitation of the format to the nth degree through subsidiary projects.

The sad thing is that most of the contestants involved just don’t get it. They don’t realise they are being exploited mercilessly, their talent and/or humour value being milked dry for as long as possible before their withered husks are tossed aside in favour of the next flavour of the week. Those princesses in the tower aren’t really going to be whisked away to a world of glamour and excitement, secure forever in a bright world full of beautiful people and an endless supply of fame and fortune; ultimately for the vast majority one day – usually far sooner than they think – the clock will strike twelve and they will find themselves back again where they started in a cold stone kitchen, dressed in rags and wondering if the night they just had was nothing but a dream. For them there will be no Prince coming knocking on their door with the glass slipper of a second chance, unless you count the trend for shows about has-beens. It’s telling that in Britain the only winner to walk away with any kind of genuine merit from the shows has been Will Young, who never had any time for Cowell (one of the few disputes on Idol that actually rang true) and pressed Fuller for a higher share of the proceeds from his success. Other competitors have rebelled too, albeit with the same mixed results, most notably the first winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, who soon discovered how little say she has over her own material when, in a dispute over the use of her songs by contestants in the fifth season, she was forced to back down. Of course even Cowell himself isn’t immune; in another high-profile case he was sued by Fuller for ripping off the Pop Idol format for The X Factor. As ABBA once sang, money, money, money, it’s a rich man’s world.

There’s a scene in 1984 in which Smith watches a woman in a slum area hanging out her washing happily singing a completely nonsensical song, one of many the Party have released to entertain and distract the masses. She’s perfectly serene in her own little world, singing something that means absolutely nothing simply because it sounds good and makes her cheerful, never for a moment stopping to realise how her existence has been totally controlled by the symbolic Big Brother, her critical faculty taken away and her free will non-existent. While a cynic might suggest this theme could apply to popular media as a whole – as someone who actively, if critically, consumes a lot of said culture it would be hypocritical for me to do so – I always think it applies particularly to reality shows, and especially to this breed of talent show. We are supplied an ever-changing roster of heroes and villains, and are expected to sing along, happily distracted and not giving much thought to what’s going on behind-the-scenes. While the series of yesteryear such as Opportunity Knocks had a genuine willingness to try and find and encourage new talent without any mercenary aims – nowadays we are encouraged to watch these shows simply to generate income for the producers, makers, premium line operators and other interested parties. It’s a calculated business, and at times rather disturbing.

However, for those many on this side of the Atlantic who do enjoy the show (and, despite the British version quickly palling, American Idol is still watched consistently by digital viewers) this is a pretty good disk that has everything a fan could hope for. All the winning performances are included, as well as those unfortunates who briefly became celebrities when they made a fool of themselves at the auditions, such as Keith Beukelaer and William “She Bangs” Hung. While there’s not a whiff of genuine controversy to be found anywhere (unless you count one enterprising chap pouring a glass of water over Cowell’s head) there’s enough material here to keep most people going, and while there’s slightly more emphasis on the Worst than the Best, overall it’s a pretty good mix.

It also exposes some basic limitations with the formula. The Best and Worst of American Idol is an appropriate name for the disk when applied to not only the singers but also the judges, as sustained viewing of these DVDS shows up both their strengths and weaknesses. It’s interesting to recall that when the show initially aired, viewers reacted very angrily to Cowell’s blunt criticisms of auditionees: how dare that stuck-up little Englishman come over here and be rude to us? He received a load of death threats and one contestant’s family informed him they were going to bash him about with baseball bats. However, as America became more familiar with his style, this outrage changed – indeed, changed quite quickly – into an affection, rather as one grows affectionate for a grumpy acquaintance once one has spent some more time with him or her. The complaints became an endearing part of his character, and were no longer seen in a malicious light, but rather one that the US took to its heart. The reason why is to be seen plainly on these disks; Cowell is a master of hyperbole and as such not to be taken seriously for a moment. Instead of sitting there and giving performers actual reasons for his dislike, he prefers to make pronouncements along the lines of “That is the worst performance I have ever heard in my life, honestly,” occasionally making a “witty” remark afterwards. Hearing that for the first few times is shocking, but when one hears it constantly, week after week after week, it’s no longer believable, and audiences realise he’s exaggerating simply to get an effect and make good television. In Season One people he was rude to were crushed; by Season Four they were defiant, taking absolutely no notice of him at all, and determined to go on trying. The lion has lost his teeth and his remarks grow tedious rather than amusing, which is actually a shame; no matter what one may think of the man, his judgement is usually impeccable, and he knows what he’s talking about. However, for television purposes, he’s now become the pantomime villain, and as such his mantra that telling people straight out they’re rubbish, so that they lose their delusions, is no longer working.

Of his two companions, it’s Randy Jackson who comes off the best. I don’t know too much of his history, but he seems a genuinely good guy, who manages to be warm and welcoming to all the contestants but unafraid to be honest. Firm but fair, he’s the judge one would choose if ever – heaven forbid – one found oneself at such an audition. Abdul spends her time uttering platitudes to everyone such as “Life is an audition” but, as she’s there to be the good cop to Cowell’s bad cop, she does her job reasonably well. On the evidence of these disks it’s difficult to tell whether she’s genuine in her emotion for the contestants or not, however, and with so much other artificiality surrounding the thing it’s perhaps impossible to ever truly know. Little is seen of host Ryan Seaquest (a name straight out of an American soap opera) but he seems to follow the presenting style of Brit hosts Ant ‘n’ Dec down to a tee. (Season One had another presenter, Brian Dunkleman, who is briefly seen on the disk, but he walked out, saying he felt like a performing monkey.)

However, no matter what one else thinks about the show, there is one undoubted source of authenticity to be found, and that is in the performers themselves. Although uneasy about the circumstances, one can’t help feeling the effort and passion the competitors put into their singing, and the amount of enjoyment and excitement they get from the experience. Although, of course, the quality of even the finalists’ performances vary, the real pleasure from these disks is to be taken seeing their efforts, and it’s a shame the disks as a whole don’t spend much more time showcasing more of those who went out before the Finale, especially as the best single performance on the entire two disks is given by someone who had only just been voted out, LaToya London (ironically singing “Don’t Rain on my Parade.”) These guys and girls are literally living their dreams, and for a few moments one can be persuaded the fairytale is real after all; when they’re up on that stage they become the stars they always dreamt they would be. What a shame they ever have to walk off the stage.

The winners and losers aside, there are a couple of minor incidents from the show missing from this set which one might have expected to see. Interestingly, there are no mentions of the few pranks that have been pulled on the judges, such as Ant ‘n’ Dec’s audition, in which they dressed as brothers and sang Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.” Another gag, in which a presenter on an Atlanta radio station pretended to get upset that the judges wouldn’t hire her – “I heard those girls and you use synthesisers and stuff on their voices so why can’t you do that with me?” – is shown, but the fact it’s a prank isn’t. There’s also no sign of the persistent Edgar Nova, the show’s answer to Darius Danesh, who got into two separate auditions in American Idol 2 and then, undaunted by his double rejection, turned up again for American Idol 3. Naturally a disk trying to cover so much material has to be selective, but these would have been fun additions.

The end of American Idol 5 earlier this year saw the latest appearance of a statistic all-too-common nowadays, namely that more people voted for their favourite singers during the show’s run than did in the last American election. It’s not surprising – who’d want to vote for those drab, dreary no-gooders up on Capitol Hill when you can help fulfil the destiny of some bright young thing, be a small part of the fairytale? By doing so, the audience is effectively saying they would rather live in a happy fantasy world than the cold hard brutality of real life, stick their heads in the clouds rather than live on planet Earth and face up to what’s really important. They are the woman in 1984 happily singing her nonsense tune, unaware – or unwilling to be aware – that what they are voting for is actually just as cynical as some of the less salubrious members of the House of Representatives. I had hoped that the lower ratings for Pop Idol 2 meant that the UK had cottoned on, but the success of The X Factor has proved otherwise. For people happy to sing along, this DVD will provide some nostalgic entertainment. For the rest of us, it’s just depressing.

I have to admit, though, that I do fancy her out of Girls Aloud. Damnit.

The Disks
The DVD set comes with two dual-layered single-sided disks, Disk One being The Best of… and Disk Two The Worst of… Not only does Disk One have a very dull menu – bare text options, with a blue background – but is clumsily put together too. Split into effectively two main features, The Best of American Idol Seasons One-Four and Season Reviews, The Best of is further divided into two subsections; Seasons One-Three are all lumped together, while Season Four gets its own slot in the Main Menu. Both are sloppily assembled; the Seasons One-Three subsection is divided into a number of chapters – namely The Search (14:36), Here Come the Judges (5:31), Auditions (6:09), Performances (37:02), Cuddles (1:31) and You’re a Star (1:56) – but one only has the option to either watch all in one go or select one individually to watch; there’s no ability to watch all from, say, chapter three. The irritation is compounded by the fact that if one does Play All, one can’t skip forward between chapters – the disks are so lazily encoded it doesn’t recognise each segment as one part of a whole. Furthermore, even if one does wish to watch a chapter individually, it had better not be Performances as there’s no option to watch all of them at once; if you’ve not Played All you are brought back to the menu after each song. These problems are all repeated in the Best of Season Four section, although fortunately there are only two sections to this one, Auditions (13:01) and Performances (19:00) so it’s not as problematic to the disk user. Overall though, a very poorly put together section.

The Season Reviews (57:30) tell the same story as the Best Of in a slightly different way; the auditions are whizzed through at lightning speed, with only the eventual winners singled out, and much more emphasis is placed on the elimination of the contestants in the final stages. Each season gets about fifteen minutes, with the exception of Season Four, which gets ten minutes which nearly all concentrates on the announcement of the winner and repeats Carrie Underwood’s victory song from the earlier Best Of segment. Fortunately, the same chapter-skipping problems do not occur here; one can watch all four seasons in one go, skip forward and back between them, or watch each individually. After the nightmare of the first Best of… sections, it’s a simple joy.

Disk Two, consists of extra footage from auditions. The Best of the Worst (61:45) does exactly what it says on the tin, being an edited collection of the less able performers to audition and the judge’s responses. How one responds to this section depends on how much one can take of sassy chicks saying, on hearing they are no good, “Well I know I have talent and I will prove you wrong and I will be a star and you can kiss my ass Simon.” Although this grows tedious, there are some vaguely amusing sequences, such as the psycho lady and the mischievously-edited sequence in which one girl tells the camera how Cowell said she had a huge amount of talent, interspersed with the rather less flattering things Cowell actually said. Extended Auditions (90:07) contain the complete footage of those lambs to the slaughter, including such fan favourites as Keith Beukelaer’s “Like a Virgin” and William Hung’s “She Bangs.” Unlike the compilations on Disk One, one is able to skip through these if the Play All function is chosen.

There are no subtitles.

Not very good. It was fairly difficult to find suitable screenshots for this review as many times faces and details are so blocky they completely lose definition. Colours don’t always appear true, especially skin tones, and in general this looks quite like one of those DVD collections of old TV shows you can get in catalogues that have had no restoration done to them at all.

Fine for what it is, but a singing contest which is only encoded for two speakers is never going to win high ratings. This isn’t the fault of the disk, of course, and certainly both the music and performances come across clearly so in general no problems.

Special Features

The Special Features on Disk One contain material which, with one exception, wasn’t part of an original Idol broadcast. The earliest segment is a rambly and sweetly naïve Interview With Kelly Clarkson (12:57) recorded in June 2002 while the competition was still running, and presents a very different image to her public persona now. Post-win, she features in the next segment, taken from a live show in the second season of Idol in which record supremo Clive Davies surprises her with the presentation of a Platinum disk for her first album (the extra, unsurprisingly, is titled Kelly Clarkson Platinum Disk Presentation and runs for 3:28). There’s no appearance for the next two winners, however, as the features then jump forward and show Season Four champion Carrie Underwood returning to her home town of Checotah, Oklahoma, and singing the national anthem before getting teary telling everyone how much they mean to her, which runs to 2:11. The last feature on the first disk is entitled Changes (5:27) and shows silent clips of the final two from each season as they progressed through the competition, asking the question how much their image and style changed as they went on. The answer is: not much, with the exception of Clay Aiken, who quickly dyed his hair black and ended up looking far different from the slightly geeky guy who walked into the first audition. Rounding up Disk One are two photo galleries, one for everyone (66 pictures) and one just for the finalists (46 pictures). This latter is better than the first, in that it names each finalist, which songs they sang and when they were eliminated (the first gallery is nameless) although quite why anyone would need to know such trivia I have no idea. Still, for completeness sake I suppose it’s a nice feature.

Disk Two’s extras could easily have been incorporated in the main sections on that disk, with the majority of them just themed montages of some of the worst auditionees. Three consist solely of people murdering famous tunes, namely Tina Turner’s song “Proud Mary” (0:58), “America The Beautiful” (1:51) and Christmas Songs (2:44). Dance Dance Dance (2:32) show that, in fact, I am not the worst dancer in the world, as had hitherto been suspected, while Fashion Faux Pas (3:06) show I am not the worst dresser in the world either, also as had been hitherto suspected. The final clip is of William Hung performing “She Bangs” live on one of the Idol shows (1:42) which is either highly amusing or rather cruel, depending on your point of view.

My reasons for disliking the show are plain enough, but for those who like the show, how does this DVD stand up? Well, it’s badly arranged, there’s a fair amount of repetition of material, and familiarity with the differences in the competition’s structure each season is essential, but it has to be admitted that pretty much everything the show is known for can be found on these two disks, with the exception of the pranks mentioned in the main body of the review. Cowell’s putdowns, the more infamous of the bad contestants, the winning performances and climaxes of each season are all to be found, and, while the fact there’s not more onscreen indications as to who it is we’re watching, or which series some of the clips are from, it’s sure to be an enjoyable nostalgia fest for those who like the show. Whether it’s a DVD you’ll want to return to again and again is another matter – I would say not – but it’s about as comprehensive a package as you would wish for. Be warned, though, that it’s all strictly sanitised stuff, with no sign of behind-the-scenes problems, or any of the genuine controversies the show has suffered over the years. Ultimately, then, not the worst disk I’ve ever seen, but not one I’d ever vote for.

James Gray

Updated: Jun 15, 2006

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