Just last week, during all of the exciting news (new seasons of all of our favorite shows!) and some of the disappointing news (no more Constantine!), you may have missed the end of an era. After a trajillion seasons, American Idol has finally been put out to pasture. And while many sites are out there putting out retrospectives of all the good memories and favorite moments, I’m going to use this editorial to say it’s about god damn time.
American Idol started when I was in high school. In 2002, actually, the same year as Firefly. But while that show only got thirteen episodes, American Idol has shambled on for fifteen seasons. Initially, I thought that might have been the source of my frustration and rage with the show. But looking back in the wake of its final, merciful end, I’ve gained a little more clarity. Who was the biggest star American Idol ever created? You’ll probably say Kelly Clarkson, and in terms of records sold, you might be right. In terms of lasting impact on the culture, however, there’s only one name that came out of American Idol and started a cultural phenomenon. And that name…
…is William Hung.
William Hung is the biggest product of the real American Idol. You see, before American Idol hit the stage, there were certainly reality competitions. But there was never one before Idol that hit on the best ratings technique in the history of reality TV – bullying. The producers realized that, by having open auditions, they would get people from all walks of life to come on the show. So they specifically set audition judges to the task of finding people they could bring on their show just to mock. They would take these “terrible” auditions, air them on national TV, have the judges savage the participants and invite the audience to do the same. It was a giant open forum on laughing at people for daring to show their faces in public and think they might have something to offer. You aren’t typically attractive? Mocked to hell. Can’t really speak English? Mocked to hell.
It was the worst excesses of reality TV, packaged into a three week event. And America ate it up, because there’s nothing that people like more than getting to bully from the privacy of their own home, or in groups around the water cooler. We, as a culture, love to mock and break down people who we don’t want to look at or listen to just for showing up to the party. We want to live in a perfect, CW world of abs and blonds and we don’t believe anybody else belongs. And while American Idol certainly didn’t stop that, they spent fifteen seasons leaning into it as hard as they possibly could. Their only goal for two or three weeks every year was to find as many people to humiliate as humanly possible. And the trend caught on. Any reality TV show with auditions now spends the requisite month and a half making sure to tell everyone fat, or with the wrong face, or with an awkward way of moving that they have no right to dream. It’s disgusting.
Reality Television has always been the place executives go to showcase the worst aspects of humanity. Shows that are meant to be about finding a hero turn into backstabbing, shows about traveling the world become about relationship drama. It’s always been, by far, the worst form of TV. American Idol didn’t start that. But for fifteen years, they’ve been wallowing in our worst excesses and encouraging us to treat each other like crap for the sake of ratings. And that’s utterly reprehensible.
So, good night, American Idol. And thank god you’re gone.
Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief of the Ace of Geeks, and one of the podcast cohosts. He’d love to see a reality show done in an interesting way one day.