As Idol matured and spawned rivals, Powers concluded, “the story of innocents thrust into the spotlight became one of self-made contenders perfecting their games.”
Alongside that evolution, the show’s audience matured. Before Gawker or Web 2.0, Cowell’s insults and snark seemed edgy and taboo-shattering. Today, everyone with access to Twitter knows that needlessly rude jerks are a dime a dozen. And empathy for people putting themselves before TV cameras has grown as social media has made almost everyone into semi-public figures at constant risk of being publicly judged, mocked, or ridiculed. Who needs more of that in their lives?
So, over time, Idol producers rose to the challenge of doing better.
In place of savaging bad performances, they used their growing budget to mine more gold from moments of humanity. In episode nine, I watched 25 hopefuls, including Lee Jean, erupt in elated cheers as they got sent through to the next round. Room two was harder viewing: 25 singers, many of them familiar faces, were cut. Finally, Sara Sturm and the rest of room three were told they were safe, too.
But the best moment, the one that convinced me that American Idol would conclude its 15-season run at the top of its game, came after all three of the big reveals.
You couldn’t watch it without smiling.
The winning contestants spilled out of their respective ballrooms. Two groups of 25 young people met in the throes of celebration, some jumping for joy. And amid the chaos, there was Sara Sturm, her expression unmistakable: I made it! This is really happening! Thank you thank you I am elated I can’t believe it I can hardly contain myself but I haven’t exploded in celebration––I may yet but haven’t quite because I am searching faces, where is Lee oh please did he make it too OMG Lee where are you where?!
All that came across in a few well-chosen frames tight on her face, interspersed with cuts of the others celebrating. Beneath those images, Sia’s “Alive” was building to its frantic climax. And at just that moment, Sara Sturm spotted Lee Jean. They rushed together, crashing into an embrace. “I told you,” Sara shouted, “we would make it together!” It was a fine bit of narrative editing to top off an episode.
Those are the sorts of moments that a mature American Idol delivered.
So, too, the last group of judges, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban, distinguished themselves as the finest American Idol ever had. They panned performances when warranted. In early auditions, they crushed some hopes by assessing talent forthrightly. But they weren’t cruel for sport. They were only cruel to be kind. They took no pleasure from the duty of telling someone that they were no good. When critiques could be softened by pointing to real strengths, they were. It wasn’t that they thought Simon Cowell was wrong about the value of truth—they simply showed by example that he’d gone farther than necessary.