The general buzz on American Idol this year has been that it's a dud. I disagree. Watching Andrew Lloyd Webber leer at young male talent is always entertaining. And I watch Ryan Seacrest with morbid fascination: how can someone be that smooth, that good, that professional, that young?
But I've been most engrossed in the character contrasts, which is what reality shows are best at. David Cook is a fantastic poseur, very talented but so obviously straining for Seriousness it's painful to watch at times. There are few people as sad as rock performers who think they are philosophers - especially those who don't have a drug habit. He's obviously the smartest performer, and probably the most all-round talented one, but who wants to encourage the pretension?
And then Jason Castro: the kid who didn't really want to be there. How wonderful was that? Stoners the world over tuned in to see what this young, dreadlocked, mellow charmer would do next. I was blown away by his "Over The Rainbow" but his singing in general is pretty weak and his main attraction was his sweet-eyed nonchalance, his obvious ambivalence to the commercial cheesiness of the show, his indifference to the cult of celebrity and vanity and ambition that Idol represents. He actually seemed comfortable being himself. He didn't need this shebang. And to see that personal security on network television - a walking (well, meandering) rebuke to the need for external validation and celebrity culture - evoked pure wonder. I was smitten.
And then poor David Archuleta. He is obviously the best singer in the competition, is almost certainly going to win it, but just as obviously is totally lost. If Castro was indifferent to the process, Archuleta seems as if his entire life has been directed toward it. Clips show him crashing the show years ago; he won his first singing competition at 10 years' old, and is a veteran Star Search competitor. The kid is still only 17 years' old. He has, alas, a classic over-bearing show-biz dad, who has now been banned from backstage. David looks to me like a Michael Jackson in the making: a brilliant talent sacrificed to the cult of celebrity and stardom at so young an age that his own emotional and spiritual development has been frozen. When he is asked to speak, he has nothing to say, except a Bambi-style mode of total humility, amazement and innocence. I feel for him and it's had not to hope someone could still rescue him from the machine that is about to consume him.
Between Jason Castro and David Archuleta, you see two ways of living in the world: one sacrificed to external recognition and one indifferent to it. We all have a bit of each in us in this tabloid, celebrified world. But Jason, to my mind, will probably live a much happier life. And he'll know, at some level, why. There's a lesson in there somewhere - even on a reality show.
(Photo: David Archuleta and friend by Ethan Miller/Getty.)