'American Idol': The Final Judgment - NBC Chicago

'American Idol': The Final Judgment

The talent show starts its last season Wednesday with an eye on its glory days.



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    Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell during their "Idol" days.

    "American Idol," from its opening note in 2002, has proven a balancing act as much as a singing competition.

    It's a show not only with three judges, but with three categories of needy – and needed – players: the panelists, the wannabe household names and the fans, who hold the real power. In the middle stands host Ryan Seacrest, the one mainstay through more than 500 installments.

    Now as "Idol" begins its 15th and final season Wednesday, the quest for equilibrium shifts: With appearances expected in the weeks to come from past judges and contestants, as well as from some major stars, the challenge turns to balancing nostalgia against relevance.

    Perhaps it doesn't matter that we're in for a lopsided last season. "Idol," after all, has spent nearly half its run tempting viewers to look back to its glory days.

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    We'll never again see a judging lineup like the original trio of acerbic Simon Cowell, loveably loopy Paula Abdul and patter-happy voice-of-reason Randy Jackson.

    We'll never again see winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, who became superstars – or an inexplicable also-ran like Jennifer Hudson, the greatest voice ever to seize the "Idol" stage.

    We'll never again see a regularly scheduled primetime show grab 30 million viewers a week – and get people voting in numbers rivaling presidential elections.

    We'll also never again see a successful show get thrown out of whack so quickly when the judges' (mostly) good-natured bantering morphed into bitter sniping that overshadowed the singers.

    The Fox moneymaking machine never fully regained its footing after Abdul quit in 2009. Sure, Jennifer Lopez gelled well with Steven Tyler, and later with current co-panelists Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr. But bringing in big names didn't always work, as evidenced by Ellen DeGeneres, who seemed out of place, and the toxic combination of Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.

    "Idol" stuck around long enough to become eclipsed by talent competition shows for which it paved the way, but that were unable to ever match its initial success, which belongs to another era.

    The best "Idol" can hope for with its victory lap isn't to go out on a high note as much as to give fans the TV equivalent of a greatest hits album. That would be appropriate for a show in which the contestants' fates rose or fell with their renditions of comfortable and familiar tunes.

    For "American Idol," spinning the same old song heralds a swan song as fans prepare to offer a final judgment on a one-time phenomena that could soar when it kept its balance.


    Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.