Recap of the 'American Idol' retrospective that aired April 5

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The history of "Idol" is already well documented. ( Richard Rushfield's "American Idol: The Untold Story" is the most thorough.).

But Fox gives the world a lovely 90-minute documentary ride of the show tonight, interviewing major players through the years from Simon Cowell to Carrie Underwood to Adam Lambert. (Brian Dunkleman? Nope. But TMZ says he'll appear on the series finale, along with William Hung.)

Others who talked: the first seven winners, season one runner up Justin Guarini (who gets a lot of airtime), season 5 top 4 finisher Chris Daughtry, season 10 winner Scotty McCreery, season 3 7th place finisher Jennifer Hudson and season 13 victor Caleb Johnson..

The biggest interview omissions were Clay Aiken and Phillip Phillips (in a dispute with 19 Entertainment.) Kellie Pickler would have been entertaining, too. But alas, they really only had 65 minutes after commercials.

Overall, it's slick and deeply entertaining, even for a jaded so-called "expert" like me.

They started with context of the music scene in 2002, when record companies still dominated the land and downloading was just becoming common. There was no iTunes or iPhones yet. Reality TV was also in its infancy and America was still recovering from 9/11. Fox was seeking summer filler, taking an idea from the U.K. "Pop Idol." (The documentary does not reveal that Fox chief Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elizabeth was a driving force behind Fox picking up the show.)

The "Pop Idol" executives convinced Simon Cowell, already a judge on "Pop Idol," to come stateside and do the same in the United States. Paula Abdul was initially wary of Simon, given what she saw of "Pop Idol," noting how nasty he was to the singers.

"I thought I was doing people a service telling them, 'You can't sing,' " Simon said.

"I quit eight times the first day," Paula said.

After Paula refused to say something bad to a contestant, Simon told her in the first episode, "You're being patronizing!"

"We didn't know what to expect," fellow judge Randy Jackson said. And after two horrible singers, he was flabbergasted. "Where are we? What the hell is this show?"

Abdul said in America, people say nasty things all the time "but they do it behind your back, not to your face."

"Idol" had to beg people the first season to try out because nobody knew what it was. (I recall Fox calling us in April, 2002, at the AJC and asking us to cover the auditions. It was the same weekend as Music Midtown. At the time, we had like 10 people covering that event. We couldn't spare a single person to go over to AmericasMart to cover the auditions of some unknown show.)

Fox executives were also nervous about all the negativity. Cowell told one woman in Hollywood her looks were a hindrance.

They were having an awful day at Dallas auditions -- until Kelly Clarkson came along.

Randy, in a bit of revisionist history, said, "When Kelly came in, we knew we had a winner." That's because Simon, when they hit Hollywood, didn't even remember her.

They also talk about the voting in its infancy. We even see Ryan hold up an ancient looking phone as a bewildered Dunkleman looked on:

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

"Idol" got 2 million votes that first night, far more than they expected. Simon was upset that America voted folks like Jim Verraros and A.J. Gill through. "They are losers and they do not deserve to be in the competition," Simon said bluntly. Both Randy and Paula argued with him aggressively but he stood his ground.

Kelly was okay with Simon's critiques: "He was just being honest. A lot of times I agreed. If you can't handle that level of criticism, it gets worse." (She knows.)

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said he only became impressed with Kelly when the live shows began and was stunned when she did a triple octave jump during "Natural Woman."

Justin: "The first season was put together with prayers and chewing gum." The show had trouble getting songs cleared. They sang to tracks. They all got laryngitis.

It started at 9 million and ended at 23 million, a true phenomenon.

They showed the season 1 finale where future judge Harry Connick Jr. was in the audience. He admitted being obsessed with the show from day one. One interesting factoid: a producer said Ryan Seacrest insisted on saying "And the winner is... Kelly Clarkson!" (Guess who stuck around for season 2 as solo host?)

In the second third of the episode, the doc runs through the show's rigorous schedule, how the live show worked and the evolution of the voting process, skipping over the  season 2 "busy signal" controversy. It also addresses how engaged people got with the show thanks to the voting - and gives us bloggers some love, too.

They also showed how Lythgoe liked to be "sadistic" at times with the results. His most creative: when there were seven finalists, he'd split six into groups of three, three safe, three not, then have the seventh person pick which side to go on. This gambit really only worked once season three: that's when poor George Huff thought LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia were safe. And he was wrong!

The final third of the retrospective notes the lack of respect "Idol" had within the music industry in the beginning, with Tom Petty saying if they had offered up stars from a game show during his era, "it would have been hysterical." They show Kid Rock slagging on the show. But thank goodness for the likes of Carrie Underwood, who Lythgoe noted was the top vote getter week in, week out that season.

One executive producer noted the tension we have argued here on this blog for years: is this an entertainment show first or truly a way to find a superstar? Obviously, a little of both. The former is necessary to draw viewers; the latter is necessary to bring credibility.

"American Idol does not entitle you to a career," said Scott Borchetta, mentor seasons 14 and 15. "It entitles you to an opportunity to have one."

Then the retrospective gets gauzy. The doc reviews some of the most successful alums and the $187 million the show raised for "Idol Gives Back" seasons 6 and 7. With huge ratings, the show became a platform for major artists to promote their latest singles, from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Beyonce to Kanye West to Miley Cyrus.

In the final minutes, they get into the changes on the judges' panel. "When you start breaking up the winning team," Jackson said, "all bets are off." Simon's departure was a big deal, though we all know he had pretty much checked out by season 9 anyway. They review the arrival of Jennifer Lopez and the wackiness of Steven Tyler and his "wickedly inappropriate" sense of humor. (Tyler was fine during auditions but became useless during the live shows.)

That season 10 actually was the last year when ratings went up. After that? Down, down, down.

The doc did note the show became more about the judges. "Working with Mariah [Carey] and Nicki {Minaj] was exceptionally challenging," Lythgoe said, in an understatement.

"Within two hours, they were screaming at each other," said Ken Warwick, executive producer.

"It's something the public didn't enjoy," Lythgoe said. "We certainly didn't."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

The show only made passing reference to "other" shows which stole the show's thunder, without uttering the name "The Voice."

And with Keith Urban, J.Lo and HCJ on board, the show got nicer. Keith is a veteran of talent shows. They show a clip of him in Australia singing Air Supply's "All Out of Love." (That alone is worth the price of admission!)

"American Idol leaves an inheritance of hope for the American dream and the dream is still alive because we've witnessed it again and again and again, " said Paula at the end, as the producers re-play Clarkson's emotional "Piece by Piece" from earlier this season.

Not surprisingly, the show skips over controversies like Corey Clark but that's okay. That's what my previous lists were for!

Will "Idol" be back at some point? Of course, as hinted in the special. But it will never be like the first time. And that's okay.


"American Idol retrospective," 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, Fox

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