For a show devoted to helping needy children, American Idol's two-hour "Idol Gives Back" special sure had an interesting way of showing it. I may be wrong about this, but I'm thinking that the surest example came at about 9:35 Wednesday, when we witnessed Celine Dion take the stage for a prerecorded duet with a clip/hologram/mirage of Elvis, singing "If I Can Dream," from his 1968 comeback special. Before you even begin to mull that over, let's back up and ask ourselves: Who ever decided this was a good idea? Or, more accurately, perhaps, who swallowed a staggering haul of hallucinogenic mushrooms?
"Now, prepare to be startled, prepare for magnificence, prepare for a duet you thought was impossible," Ryan Seacrest said in his introduction. "Celine Dion is traveling back to the year she was born, 1968, to sing with a man who is and always will be the world's greatest idol." Yes, "thought was impossible" for good reason, because one of the participants is dead. Also, even if Elvis were still with us, would we really want him duetting with Celine Dion? And furthermore, see how we are totally not thinking about underprivileged children anymore?
Awkwardly mixing AI's trademark hyper-commercialism and "results" with genuinely moving material, Wednesday's show didn't so much give back as ricochet all over the place. By juxtaposing its normal, frivolous routine with clips of people in the direst of straits - dying of AIDS or malaria, or struggling to reclaim their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - it often unintentionally dropped reminders that real hardship involves a whole lot more than getting ejected from a popular reality show. To the program's credit, though, it at least managed to involve itself with, and finish off the night with help from, someone who's been credibly wedding pop music with idealism and charity for a long, long time: Bono, who met the Top Six and provided some inspiring words the contestants likely took to heart.
Anyway, I've tried to come up with an equation that could even come close to encapsulating the show that was, and although this may be imprecise, I'll give it a whirl: Live Aid (or Live 8, your choice!) + the Telethon of your choice - most tastefulness + (Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul) + a dash of the dizzy randomness of last season's "Idol" finale + Sanjaya in the audience + commercials for "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?" = "Idol Gives Back."
Just like "Idol" itself, the charity appeal wasn't exactly bursting with radical activism. Instead, it approached issues with middle-of-the-road, inoffensive, universal appeal. Throughout the night, Seacrest dutifully credited a list of sponsors that read like a roll call of corporate America, sometimes with ironic results. Was that segment on Hurricane Katrina really brought to us by Allstate, the insurance giant currently battling more than a few lawsuits from Gulf Coast homeowners who argue the company hasn't sufficiently compensated them for their losses? Oh, but it was.
Wednesday also had its own reminder of '80s charity-pop idealism in the new, globally inclined Quincy Jones ballad, "Time To Care," which the contestants sang live. It had Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, Il Divo, and a bizarre laundry list of celebrities lip-synching to "Stayin' Alive." (Why? I'm still trying to figure, too.) It had "Idol" judges meeting with the impoverished. And because of, well, what it was, it ended up with collisions like the night's first celebrity appeal for donations, courtesy of Will & Grace star Eric McCormack: "If every person who voted for Sanjaya gave just one dollar, we could do so much good." Or this Randy Jackson voice-over in a clip that followed clips of jubliant "Idol" auditioners with shots of suffering New Orleanians gathering at the Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: "August 31, 2004, New Orleans, Louisiana. That day, 9,000 hopefuls lined up in front of the Superdome. Exactly one year later, Katrina would unleash her horror, and another crowd would gather here."
Also present: plenty of abrupt transitions, like, "Hey look, it's Oscar winner Forest Whitaker sending his congratulations from Uganda! Oh, wait, it's Seacrest saying 'time for the results!'" Yeah, about the results, or lack thereof: Even Seacrest, usually the master of suspense, couldn't keep that cat in the bag. After about the first of five times he promised "the most shocking result in our history," I figured the only result shocking enough to fit that description would be for no one to get kicked off. (By the way, Entertainment Weekly's Idol watcher totally called it in his recap of Tuesday's show.) Or, as Seacrest himself put it later, "How can we let anybody go on a charity night?" Ok, point taken, but why, then, did he act like the elimination suspense was necessary to keep people watching, continuing to drag out the "results" charade for two hours? What does that say about the producers' opinion of the Idol nation's charitable impulses?
Ellen DeGeneres also totally gave it away in, like, the first five minutes of the show, when she asked, "There's six people, one's gonna get kicked off, what's shocking?" Oh, foreshadowing, you do have a funny way of rearing your head! Anyway, once LaKisha was safe, it became pretty clear no one was going home. The contestants sure didn't seem surprised by the outcome; when Chris and Jordin were only two remaining, they appeared to be stifling smiles because they were in on the scheme. Once Seacrest announced they were all safe, they convened for a group hug, but they shouldn't get too comfy: All the warm fuzziness of the evening just delayed the inevitable, and so two people will head home next week. Oooh, double elimination! I bet Seacrest is already plotting how to handle that one.
Anyway, let's break it down a bit...
- When Jack Black, kinetic and semi-possessed as usual, and looking every bit the scruffy dude who just got off the couch after a nap and a few beers, took to the stage and began to warble Seal's "Kiss From A Rose." (Yeah, that was definitely his partner in Tenacious D, Kyle Gass, in the audience, clutching a rose.) Best line by far: When JB shooed off Seacrest on his way to singing, saying, "No way, Cresty! Get outta here, dude. I've been dreaming about this for so long, I've been trying to do this, and I want to be judged by this jury panel." Second-best line: "(The song) is from Batman Returns, the most sensitive of all the Batmans."
- When, after Jack Black departed, Seacrest said "Back to the real talent on this stage," and asked about the contestants' fate. Dude, Seacrest, wasn't Jack Black the real talent on that stage?
- When the animated Simon, playing a contestant in a "Simpsons" parody of "Idol" auditions, fell through a trapdoor, leading Bart to proclaim, "Lions haven't eaten this well since Dunkleman!" (Referring, of course, to the Idol co-host who unceremoniously departed after season one.
- Earth, Wind & Fire starting the musical portion of the show with a medley that included that noted charity classic, "Boogie Wonderland," as well as "Shining Star" and "Dancing in September."
- That bit with Ben Stiller, who was game, but is usually a lot funnier.
- That odd transatlantic waver in Michigan native Madonna's voice, as she appealed for donations in a clip filmed in Malawi.
- So very many of the guest appearances.
- Josh Groban and the African Children's Choir singing "You Raise Me Up." Even though I would be perfectly content to live the rest of my life without ever hearing that song again, the performance was actually really touching, especially with the sweet-natured children harmonizing. Much to my surprise, I was moved. Curses, American Idol and your expertly manipulating ways!
- Kelly Clarkson singing a "Up To The Mountain," with Jeff Beck on guitar. The guitar playing? Awesome. Clarkson's singing? Warm, soulful and emotional. (Take that, other "Idols.") And the way the song began with minimal accompaniment and slowly built? Expert.
- Annie Lennox, because she's Annie Lennox and her voice is just that special, not to mention dignified.
- The purposefully heart-rending footage from impoverished areas of the U.S. and Africa that the judges and Seacrest didn't intrude on too heavily. No matter how strange the evening was, the show deserves props for shining a pretty huge spotlight on areas of the nation and world that are too often out of sight, among them the slums and orphanages of Kenya, FEMA trailer parks in Louisiana and the Appalachian coal country of eastern Kentucky. "You just had to have a strong back and a weak mind when I was growing up, 'cause you could get a job doing something, but now, it's a whole lot different," an older Kentucky man said in the latter segment. Then, a largely illiterate mother spoke of the pride she feels at hearing her daughter read. If even a small number of AI's 30 million viewers saw that and thought about what it meant, and were moved to make a difference somehow, then perhaps that whole Celine and Elvis thing is worth forgiving after all. ;-)