Idol Thoughts

We may be gear heads here at UAV, but the not-so-secret secret about the consumer electronics business is that it's about music and movies. In other words, it's Show Biz. Without that connection, our equipment racks would be filled with expensive boat anchors.

My tastes are eclectic, to say the least. Films as varied as Lord of the Rings (all three of them!) and A Man for All Seasons are on my top 25 list. In fact, the latter was cablecast recently back-to-back with A Lion in Winter on HDNet. LiW looked great, though MFAS was a little grainy. But I didn't notice once I got into the film again, drawn in by screenwriter and playwright Robert Bolt's crisp, intensely literate dialog.

And anyone who has followed my reviews over the years also knows my love of both good science fiction and good animation (which many adults are embarrassed to watch unless accompanied by a rug rat or two). You can't get much further from A Man for All Seasons than Monsters, Inc. or Serenity!

Music is hardly an afterthought in my hierarchy of passions. My initial love was for classics, but it's now pretty varied. And while I find combining audio and video important in appreciating a total performance (more important with some artists and genres than others), don't get me started on the present state of pop music, stuffed with no-talent singers who just happen to look hot.

But while I love singing, I completely missed the first five seasons of the most popular show on television, American Idol. When I saw the special features on the Shrek II DVD, I had no idea who Simon Cowell was, and I didn't much care. I assumed AIwas just another cheap reality show on a network (Fox) littered with them.

But when I saw the movie Dreamgirls (scheduled for a May 1 release on DVD and Blu-ray) I was struck by Jennifer Hudson's show-stopping performance. This singer got her break—even though she didn't win—on on that tacky reality show? Maybe there's something there.

There is. I can now understand the show's popularity. The early auditions run from the promising to the bizarre, but if you don't enjoy watching people making fools of themselves and getting skewered for it, skip those weeks. But once the field gets winnowed down to a dozen or so contenders (where it is now), it gets genuinely interesting. There are a lot worse ways to find real talent, and the music industry continues to rely on most of them.

I won't get into details here. But among the 10 remaining contestants (as I write this), at least one or two are still hanging on for reasons unrelated to talent, and at least three are good enough to sign record deals today. One of them could make it big. There are a lot of pitfalls between talent and music immortality, but the chance to view the possible birth of a major star is one of the show's most compelling attractions.

But the two-hour finals, broadcast every Tuesday from now until mid-May, include a lot of filler. A good PVR is a godsend. It lets you get to the good stuff in short order and skip the rest. It rarely takes me longer then 40 minutes to catch the meat of the show.

A half hour show on Wednesday sorts out the latest eliminatee (based on viewer's votes following the previous night's performances— the show's main weakness is that in the finals the public gets to choose the leaders, and eventual winner, by (uncontrolled) call-in voting. It also presents a performance by the star or stars who were brought in to "coach" the singers that week. So far, the guest coaches/singers (including, in earlier weeks, winners from past seasons) have been easily trumped by the best of the current contestants!

The show is now live (delayed in the West), and the tightrope nature of the performances gives them a will-they or won't-they intensity that no pre-recorded, music video dreck can match. A couple of contestants have even forgotten some of the words, mumbling along for a bar or two until they regained their composure.

The show looks great in high definition, and the sound isn't exactly chopped liver, either. The sets are intensely detailed and colorful, the lighting design creative and varied (some could call it gaudy— but hey, this is show biz). What I'd love to see after this season wraps up in May is a DVD—and high definition!—release of the best of the show, or even a boxed set of the whole season. Considering the popularity of AI, this could well be a killer-ap for the one of the new HD disc formats. And since the show is on Fox, and Fox supports only Blu-ray, you can guess which format that would be.

An Amazon search, however, turned up only a few DVD releases from previous years of AI. This seems inexplicable, but just might involve getting full rights to use the songs, in much the same way that past television shows, like Northern Exposure, had to replace portions of their soundtracks when they went to DVD because they couldn't get ongoing rights to all the music. As it is, the rights that the show can obtain limit the songs that the singers choose to perform. Last week's "British Invasion" theme could not, apparently, include any Beatles songs! It's also possible that the rights include broadcast only, not DVD, though if that's the case the production staff is incredibly shortsighted.

Even if you're not a fan of reality television—and my previous five-year avoidance of Idolputs me in that group—you need to check it out at least once, if for no other reason than to see what the fuss is all about. And even if you're not impressed by some of the singers (that's hard to imagine), you can always ogle the sets in high def.

Even if you don't like it, you'll probably appreciate why it's so popular, outdrawing most other television shows by as much as two-to-one and leaving the competition gasping for air. A recent spot on CBS' 60 Minutes even profiled AI's love-to-hate-him, super-critical judge, Simon Cowell. Giving time to a lead character on a show from a competing network is a classic example of "if you can't beat them, use them."