Idol needs to give back 144 minutes of my life

Although I wasn’t exactly looking forward to Idol Gives Back, I forgot what makes it so awful–beyond the fact that it’s largely a two-hour results show, or in the case of last night’s episode, 144 minutes. That’s 24 minutes past the scheduled end because neither Fox nor the producers have any respect for their viewers. (It’s one thing to schedule a long episode, so DVRs can be automatically adjusted, and another to just run over because you can.)

The awkwardness was evident from the first few moments, when Barack Obama said, “As Randy says, you’re all my dawgs,” an awkwardly scripted line that didn’t seem like something Obama would say. Worse, Michelle Obama explained that Idol Gives Back “has raised more than $140 million dollars” for charity. That’s great, except the obvious question is, how many billions of dollars has American Idol made for Fox and CKX?

Despite that, I think it’s fantastic that the country’s most-popular show spends time introducing its audience to people who are far less fortunate than we are. Highlights last night were David Cook visiting Ethiopia and talking about and singing to orphan girls who are sometimes sold into the sex trade and other horrible things, and Elton John insisting people “wear condoms, be tested” for HIV. All of this is great, and that’s excluding the fun moments like Wanda Sykes hilariously eviscerating the show’s stupider elements (“They make the losers sing. … Come out here and remind America why they didn’t vote for you”).

However, it’s also weird that the show begs us for money during a nearly 2.5 hour episode that is packed with commercials–always time for ads!–and corporate sponsor mentions. And a lot of it just comes off as commercialism disguised as charity.

The worst example for me was Carrie Underwood, who used her post-performance time to pimp her tour, spending more time talking about expanding the tour than the “36 cents of every ticket sale” that will be donated to Save the Children. Just 36 cents? Hell, those bastards at Ticketmaster charge around $10 for that bullshit “convenience charge.”

More often than not (there was some not, like Todd Bridges in the audience), the celebrities were reading scripted lines and seemed disinterested, which was perhaps them trying to act somber, though Victoria Beckham just looked like a zombie. Ryan Seacrest’s interview with Bill and Melinda Gates seemed overly scripted (or maybe he’s a bad interviewer and they’re just awkward), and Russell Brand and Jonah Hill’s not-really-funny phone bank bits were a thinly veiled ad for their forthcoming movie, which aired its trailer during the commercials.

Maybe it’s just the telethon format that doesn’t work, but the show made me do everything except want to give money, and for it to fumble its opportunity is actually disappointing. Then again, they fumble every single results show, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it was so bad.

Speaking of bad, this season’s finalists were around, too, wearing all-white and sometimes ripped, Mad Max-like clothes, in which they lip synced and waited to hear their fate. Casey James and Aaron Kelly were in the bottom three, but it was Tim Urban who went home. This was surprisingly only in that he’s actually been decent the past few weeks; Simon Cowell’s strategy of not ragging him apparently paid off, making his fans complacent and sending him home. Tim, however, wasn’t allowed to sing. Maybe Wanda Skykes criticism had an immediate impact? Or the show just didn’t want to rudely run over another 1.5 minutes after running over 24 minutes?

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.