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'Rock Star' Puts 'Idol' to Shame

Since it’s the top-rated TV show in America, I guess I’m not making much of a confession when I say that I watch American Idol. And I enjoy Idol a lot, despite being annoyed by a few of the flaws in its premise. Last season’s rejiggering of the show’s middle weeks was a big improvement.

These past few years, American Idol has spawned several uninspired knock-offs, including the nobody-asked-for-it resurrection of Star Search. The only reality show in the ballpark with Idol in terms of both quality and ratings is the show that started it all, Survivor.

Leave it to Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor (and a few Survivor clones), to beat American Idol at its own game. Rock Star: INXS has many faults — some of them pretty serious — and it’s hardly setting the ratings on fire. But as pure entertainment, Rock Star blows away American Idol on almost every level.

Part of the show’s success has to do with its method of choosing contestants. Burnett, a master of reality-show casting, filled Rock Star with a collection of talented singers, many of whom have previously fronted rock bands with actual recording contracts, actual records, and even actual hit songs. In contrast, American Idol is populated with undiscovered amateurs. The result: Rock Star’s top six singers would be competitive with the six best American Idol singers collected over four seasons.

Rock Star’s also more lively than Idol, which has always been fashioned as a family show. Rock Star has more of an edge — we seen the contestants living a bit of the rock-star life in the show’s L.A. mansion, drinking, smoking, fighting, and generally living it up. Sure, Rock Star seems to believe in a vision of the rock scene as it was in the ’60s and ’70s — the sort of “let’s rock!” attitude that you’ve seen taken to extremes by Spinal Tap and Jack Black. It’s mildly ridiculous, but it’s still got a life that you don’t see from fresh-faced youngsters doing wacky skits about how much they love their Ford Focus.

The result of the show’s rock focus and its better cast of performers seems to be that the show has been able to put together a much better collection of songs than those performed on Idol. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Nirvana — the set lists of the weekly Rock Star performance shows are consistently good. Compare that to some of the embarrassing song choices you hear every week on Idol.

Sure, it’s funny to hear the band at the center of Rock Star: INXS referred to as an “international supergroup,” when in fact INXS is more likely to be languishing in the “Where Are They Now?” file. But Burnett was smart when he chose INXS: the band’s surviving members are personable — I particularly enjoy that the drummer can’t help but play air-drums as songs are performed — and INXS really does have a better catalog than those of us who only remember “What You Need” might realize.

And having INXS present in every episode gives the show a razor-sharp focus that Idol also lacks: the winner of Idol gets… what exactly? A record contract? But some of those winners haven’t really done anything, and several runners-up seem to have even better shots at stardom than the singers who beat them. Rock Star, meanwhile, is searching for a very specific person: the person who will front INXS on a world tour and sing on its forthcoming album. So in that way (much like Burnett’s own The Apprentice), Rock Star is an extended job interview— er, audition. And contestants can’t just get ahead by sucking up to the voters — they’ve got to impress their prospective bandmates as well.

Which leads to perhaps the best example of why Rock Star is a better show than Idol: the “results show.” American Idol follows up its entertaining performance show one day later with a program that is quite possibly the biggest waste of time to hit American television screens since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s empty vault on live TV. It’s 29 minutes of goofy skits, up-with-people group performances, and painful stalling for time, and then one minute that reveals which contestant will be sent home. If you have a TiVo, the Idol results show is a watchable couple of minutes. If you don’t, then watching the results show has a similar effect to several noxious plants once used by Native Americans in ritual ceremonies. Kids, don’t try this at home.

The Rock Star results show, in contrast, is a purely entertaining half-hour. (In the past couple of weeks, the show’s been expanded to a full hour, with the addition of some padding, but not as much as you’d think.) Unlike Idol, which inexplicably forces the audience to listen to the lowest vote-getter reprise the song that got them voted out of the tribe, Rock Star rewards the previous night’s best performance with an encore.

Then there’s the matter of the voting. In Idol, the three lowest vote-getters are revealed as a stalling tactic, manufacturing some drama until the final loser is revealed. In Rock Star, the public’s votes only have the effect of choosing the three contestants who must sing to survive. Then the three low vote-getters perform a song from the INXS catalog, allowing the band to judge which one of them is the worst fit and most deserving of elimination. Then the singer’s eliminated, a la The Apprentice, right down to an eye-rolling catch phrase. (“You’re just not right for our band, INXS.” Talk about product placement.)

As a result, the Rock Star results show features a good encore performance and three taut, emotion-charged new performances by people who are singing to stay on the show. And by moving the final choice for which performer to cut from the hands of the public to the hands of the show’s judges, it gives the judges a valuable job. (Cowell, Abdul and Jackson, as entertaining as they are, are basically as integral to Idol’s endgame as a vestigal third nipple.)

I mentioned that Rock Star had many faults, and it’s worth pointing them out in the hopes that the show will return next year. Top of the list is the show’s host, Brooke Burke. Burke may look pretty in some of the skanky outfits the show dresses her in, but her robotic readings of the text on her teleprompter are painful to behold. As annoying as Ryan Seacrest — out! — can be, he is a capable host who comes across as a real person with legitimate reactions to what’s going on around him. Burke, in contrast, seems like one of those omnipotent computer-beings Captain Kirk always used to encounter (and destroy through diabolical fits of illogic): unplug her script and all she’d be able to say would be, “Error! Error! Error!”

The show’s co-host, guitarist Dave Navarro, is pretty creepy, but he’s grown on me. Navarro’s place in the show is to identify with the singers and serve almost as their emissary to the rest of the show. He’s a bit too effusive with his post-performance praise, but he’s not the half of the hosting team that worries me.

Finally, there’s INXS themselves. The show treats them like rock royalty, when in reality they’re a step down from Duran Duran and only a couple steps up from Cutting Crew and Mr. Mister. The performances on Rock Star’s results shows have convinced me that INXS really does have some good pop-rock songs in its catalog, and I’m sure the band’s already made a fortune in record sales based on that exposure. But it’s a bit ridiculous to treat them as if they were the Beatles, or Pink Floyd, or even Journey.

But that’s a minor quibble. Even with the animatronic form of Brooke Burke sucking all the oxygen out of the room, Rock Star: INXS is the best new reality show in ages, and exposes many of American Idol’s faults. Idol is still fun to watch, but it’ll truly be a disappointment if Rock Star doesn’t return next summer to give the nation’s #1 TV show another kick in the premise.


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