I’m of two minds about last night’s extraordinarily hyped-up Idol Gives Back special. On the one hand, it’s certainly encouraging to see America’s highest-rated TV show going out of its way to remind its millions upon millions of viewers that poverty exists and to raise money to help people who need it. The conditions that we saw in all of last night’s video montages were pretty fucking horrible, and I’m happy to see the show’s producers taking advantage of their massive cultural power to do some actual good. So I can’t really call last night’s two-hour special anything but a good thing. But I wish they could’ve done that sort of good without the disquieting patina of self-congratulation that was all over last night’s show. The previous night, Ryan Seacrest had announced that NewsCorp would be donating ten cents for every one of the show’s first fifty million votes to a number of different charities, and he drove the point home thusly: “It may be the most important call you ever make.” (Bridget: “Give me a fucking break, Seacrest. It’s ten cents.”) And yeah, the show’s corporate parent donated five million dollars to all these charities, and that’s great, but doesn’t Fox make about that much money off of one American Idol commercial break?
Idol did last night’s results show telethon-style, interspersing montages of poverty and degradation with slickly inspirational performances from the likes of Josh Groban and Rascal Flatts. If showing footage of Randy Jackson hugging Hurricane Katrina survivors can actually raise money for those same survivors, then I guess the ends justify the means, but it doesn’t exactly make all the sanctimony disappear in a puff of smoke. And it’s also tough not to notice that Simon Cowell sounds exactly the same complaining about conditions of African AIDS shelters as he did complaining about the quality of Seattle’s Idol auditions. At times, last night’s show felt like an honest attempt to right some of the wrongs in the world. At times, it seemed like an excuse to cram as many celebrities as possible into a couple of hours of prime-time TV. I guess that’s the line that a mass-culture phenomenon has to walk if it wants to draw attention to anything other than itself.
Also, Borat was originally supposed to be on this show, but he was mysteriously absent from last night’s broadcast. So someone at Fox first thought it would be a good idea to book him for this one, and someone else panicked and kept it from happening. I would’ve loved to have been in the room for both of those meetings.
I’m not the first person to do a running diary on this thing, but fuck it, we’re all ripping off Fluxblog anyway.
8:00: All the contestants are dressed in white and looking serious; I guess they’re angels? Ryan Seacrest seriously flubs his opening lines; you’d think he’d be used to live TV by now.
8:02: Simon has seriously been rocking the unbuttoned shirts lately. He looks like a character from Match Point or something. It’s not a good look.
8:04: Ellen DeGeneres, hosting the live simulcast of this show from some other theater, proves that she is totally willing to sing “Shoop” anytime she gets a chance. Earth, Wind & Fire, blindingly sparkly costumes and questionable hairstyles and all, would be a pretty weird choice to open this show if they weren’t awesome. They run through a super-fast hits medley like wizened pros. Swooping disco-funk never gets old.
8:09: The night’s first poverty montage concerns the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina. I already came off like enough of a heartless dick in those intro paragraphs; there’s no way I’m going to write any jokes about these things.
8:11: Sanjaya Malakar is back in the crowd, looking serious. He didn’t take too long to do the whole returning-contestant thing.
8:12: Quincy Jones gets some screen time, and I get the impression that this is all an attempt to make up for that episode earlier this season when Seacrest totally cut him off mid-sentence. He’s produced a new group song for the remaining contestants to sing, and it’s somewhere between Up With People and mid-80s Peter Gabriel. It also, no joke, includes the lyric “make it rain.” The contestants display their palpable lack of chemistry, and Quincy dances awkwardly. This is some great TV right here.
8:16: Hey, it’s Will from Will & Grace! Reminding us to call the donation hotline! And making a Sanjaya joke! Why?
8:19: Now it’s Ross from Friends doing pretty much the same thing! Why?
8:20: Ben Stiller mentions Mystery Men. I really liked that movie. I should Netflix that shit. He also sings. This isn’t too funny.
8:31: I guess this is still a results show. Earlier, Seacrest announced the most shocking result in Idol history, and I was hoping maybe it’d mean the end of the slickly professional and uber-boring Melinda Doolittle, but no, she’s safe. Damn.
8:34: I’ve somehow managed to go up until now without hearing Simon’s Eurotrash pop-opera discovery Il Divo, and they’re pretty much exactly what I expected. I have to wonder if all pop would be this maudlin if Simon had his way. (Slightly drunk Bridget: “I like it! It’s so happy!”)
8:37: Now Dr. Phil wants us to call the donation hotline. They’ve really managed to cobble together a totally random celebrity-parade.
8:43: Jack Black, quite possibly coked to the gills, sings “Kiss From a Rose” as part of a random-audience-member bit. He says it’s from Batman Returns, and none of the judges bothers to remind him that it’s totally from Batman Forever. Seal, in a stunt-casting cameo, says he liked it. The jokes afterward were lame, but the performance itself was actually pretty great. All the Sanjaya jokes tonight are sort of fucked up considering that he’s sitting right there.
8:46: Blake Lewis is safe. Fuck! Bridget predicts that they’re not sending anyone home tonight.
8:54: Rascal Flatts plays. I liked Il Divo better. Gary LeVox looks sort of like Blake Lewis’s fat uncle.
8:57: It’s Tom from MySpace! I guess he has to show up for stuff like this now that Rupert Murdoch is totally his boss.
9:00: Whoa, Paula Abdul is showing some serious cleavage. This is a live show! There’s really a pretty high potential for a tragic wardrobe malfunction, and can you imagine the sort of PR shitstorm that would come of that?
9:05: The random celebrity-parade lip-syncs and mugs its way through “Stayin’ Alive.” Most of them didn’t bother to learn the lyrics. Is Chris Kattan really still considered a celebrity? LeBron is pretty funny, anyway.
9:08: Phil Stacey is safe! Fuck you, America!
9:13: Josh Groban looks and sounds like an escaped former member of Il Divo. The African backup singer kid with the missing front teeth totally upstages him.
9:26: It’s entirely possible that Kelly Clarkson has become pop music’s finest belter of scenery-chomping power-ballads. She howls “Up to the Mountain,” and it’s pretty great. I don’t know why Jeff Beck had to show up and blooz-noodle his way through the whole thing behind her, but whatever.
9:32: It’s really not that funny when American Idol makes fun of itself, even if it does so in the form of a Simpsons parody.
9:33: LaKisha is safe, and they’re really milking the suspense here. I’m gonna be pissed if Jordin gets voted off.
9:35: The spoilers were true! The producers of American Idol, in their infinite wisdom, have Forrest Gumped in some circa-1968 footage of Elvis, forcing him to duet with Celine Dion. Celine displays exactly the level of chemistry that you’d expect her to have with old-ass Elvis footage. Whose idea was this? Seriously, this is some really weird TV.
9:39: Madonna poses with a bunch of kids in Malawi, and I can’t possibly make any joke that hasn’t already been made.
9:46: Seacrest fumbles his way through some more technical difficulties. This is the closest I’ve ever seen him come to completely unraveling. If this trend continues, he’s going to turn into the boom-goes-the-dynamite guy before long.
9:47: Annie Lennox, looking truly amped to be on TV again, gives a really powerful read of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and, improbably enough, takes performance-of-the-night honors. That was just really good.
9:56: Seacrest teases a Jordin Sparks elimination before announcing that none of the contestants is going home this week. That’s a real cop-out ending to a two-hour results show, but Bridget totally called it. Two contestants are going home next week, so that’ll be interesting, anyway.
9:57: Bono, in a brand-new mental-patient haircut, makes his much-hyped appearance, which doesn’t really amount to much. All the Idol contestants sing another big group song, and the show finally ends. Good causes and all, but I can’t shake the impression that I would’ve had a much better time if I’d just spent two hours watching this over and over.