“We haven’t pulled it off just yet,” Ryan said to Luke Bryan at the start of American Idol‘s first “On With the Show” episode, which featured performances from the top 20 contestants from their homes.
But they did pull it off, and spectacularly. This was the best episode of American Idol in years. It improved despite the challenges and constraints.
I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t something that looked this good or that allowed for such a strong connection with the contestants. The show appeared slightly less glossy than usual, but still had strong production values, especially considering the situation. This was not American Idol on Zoom.
Seeing this level of talent coming from inside their wonderfully imperfect homes—instead of on a glossy set—illustrates a point that American Idol usually strains to make about how its cast members are real people just like you and me, from all kinds of places.
During the episode, the sound quality seemed, to my untrained ear, just like the regular shows. And the video quality—every contestant and judge was filmed by an iPhone—was a little flatter than usual, but otherwise looked great. Only Luke Bryan seemed like the person on a Zoom call who’s about to blink out because their internet connection is unstable.
Rather than Ryan Seacrest sidling up next to a contestant on stage, we had much more heartwarming moments of family members rushing in to hug and cheer for their family member. Franklin Boone had family standing off to the side, holding signs: “We Love Frank,” “Vote for Frank.”
The one misstep was Katy Perry appearing in an elaborate costume that turned her into a bottle of Purell—I mean, “American Idol Instant Music Sanitizer”—for the entire two hours. She said she’s unable to feed her pregnancy cravings, but she was somehow able to get a custom costume, and all it did was call attention to her.
From its cast’s homes, American Idol was far more personal and real. For the singers, it is surely disappointing to not get to perform on a stage, in front of an audience, and experience what it’s like to be a reality TV star in Hollywood.
But since that just isn’t possible right now, this was the best possible showcase for them, both as personalities and singers.
Two years ago, when the show returned on ABC, it became more personal and intimate, more focused on the singers and their talent, so it wasn’t exactly in the kind of dismal state it was on Fox. But this was another, wonderfully large step in the direction of the contestants.
It might have even given more attention to singing than the regular show does, which Luke Bryan acknowledged while critiquing Lauren. “When we’re in the studio filming Idol regularly, there’s so many fans and crowds, we sometimes miss all of the nuances in your voice,” he said.
How the contestants presented themselves—the rooms they chose, the backdrops—may have been influenced or even chosen by producers. But it still stripped away so much of the artifice and gave all the attention to the singing.
Some of the contestants were just standing in rooms in their houses, while others had some fun homemade production design, with mini-sets constructed from household objects (and maybe equipment or props sent to the contestants?).
Aliana Jester was in her garage, surrounded by six lamps, plus two clip-on work lights bathing the garage door in red light; Nick Merico played on a keyboard in front of stacks of crates draped with market lights.
I’m curious if they’ll change up their home sets, or their locations, for future performances, or if viewers would want to see them in the same place each week.
I also wonder if any of these choices will affect votes: Lauren Spencer-Smith performed from the deck of her lakeside house, overlooking a dock and, in the distance, tree-covered mountains, which made me jealous.
Most of all, I just don’t quite know how they’re going to go from 20 to 10 in one week. After Makayla Phillips’ performance, Lionel Richie said, “Let’s just all 20 of them go through and call it a day.”
How American Idol produced an episode in contestants’ homes
While watching, I went in search of information about how the production pulled this off. USA TODAY’s Gary Levin reported that:
“Producers scheduled Zoom meetings with each of the 20 ‘Idol’ singers to map out several spots to perform at their homes or quarantine locations for the duration of the season. Supplies were shipped to each: Three of the latest Apple iPhone model to ensure multiple camera angles, a professional microphone and a lighting kit. They’ll have Zoom sessions with vocal coaches, normally done side by side, and work out arrangements for songs.”
The preparation and equipment is one thing, but the post-production did a lot of the heavy lifting. It also called attention to the vital work of reality TV editors, who pulled together all of this footage into a seamless episode.
Back-up singers—who recorded tracks at their homes, just like the band recorded their parts remotely—popped or slid in and out of the frame, a nice acknowledgement of their contribution.
The actual performances didn’t appear visually identical to each other. Some were more straightforward, while Olivia Ximines’s performance of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” was almost edited like a music video, with lots of cuts from the different camera angles made possible by those three iPhones.
At least one of the performances visibly used footage from multiple performances, perhaps rehearsals. Watch DeWayne Crocker, Jr’s performance, and you’ll see his hands switch positions on the mic and mic stand repeatedly in zero seconds, as the image changes. The audio doesn’t change, and I don’t think this indicates any kind of shenanigans; it’s probably just an effort to make the performance look as good as possible.
Update: Executive producer Trish Kinane told Yahoo Music that each contestant got three takes, but explained how it worked:
“They each get three passes, and the second pass is the audio pass. The first pass is one where the artist normally just gets into the groove and settles down a bit. The second pass is usually the best audio pass, because they’re in it and they give their best performance. And then the third pass, we’re doing that really more for [edited] visuals. But whatever happens with their audio on that second pass, that’s the one that is used, because it’s exactly the same as if they were on the stage. And if they screw it up, then they screw it up.”
In this two-hour episode, American Idol demonstrated that there’s a way forward for live, in-studio shows—including The Voice and America’s Got talent—to continue even in this era. And it’s also set a very high bar.
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