There are many ways in which a show can jump the shark. In the case of Happy Days, it's by having a main character actually water-ski over Jaws. In other cases, it can mean the addition of a cute kid (Oliver on The Brady Bunch), the exit or death of a major character (Seven Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter continuing without John Ritter), the consummation of two characters' long-simmering attraction (Sam and Diane on Cheers), the old actor switcharoo (Dick Sargent replacing Dick York on Bewitched), or the addition of professional shark-jumper/show-destroyer Ted McGinley (Happy Days, Married With Children, The Love Boat, even Dancing With The Stars).
Really, pretty much all TV shows make the shark-jump eventually, if they're allowed to remain on the air for enough seasons.
However, one show I never thought would jump the shark is the seemingly infallible American Idol. And granted, the program is still a ratings titan, but as it enters it eighth (yes, EIGHTH!) season, and its quickly-dropped alumni sell fewer and fewer records, the execs at 19 Management and Fox are probably getting a little jumpy themselves. So in hopes of keeping season 8 fresh, they're implementing more changes than the later seasons of all the aforementioned shows combined.
Will this makeover work? Or will the new Idol format fall at flat as Sanjaya Malakar's vocals? Here's what's in store:
A FOURTH JUDGE
The addition of a new judge, Kara DioGuardi--a pro songwriter who's penned tunes for Idols Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, as well as for Celine Dion, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Lindsay Lohan, the Jonas Brothers, Ashlee Simpson, Christina Aguilera, and Kylie Minogue--is probably the most-hyped and most conspicuous format change of season 8. This could be a good thing. It might be nice to have another female voice on the panel--especially a voice of reason, unlike Paula Abdul's. And judging from all interviews I've seen with Kara, the lady's a real spitfire who'll give Simon Cowell a run for his money. And if the rumors are true--that Queen Paula is none too thrilled about having to share the small screen with another alpha-female--then we can expect some estrogen-fueled catfights that will surely make for awesome TV. Yay!
And of course, when Paula inevitably loses the last of her proverbial marbles and is carted off by men in white coats, Kara will still be around, an understudy ready and able to fill Paula's vacated center seat. How convenient!
But logistically, I'm not sure how the inclusion of another mouthpiece is going to work out. On live broadcasts in particular, the judges always seemed pressed for time, desperately trying to cram in all their commentary before they're interrupted by Simon or before Ryan Seacrest orders them to wrap it up. So how is Kara or any other judge going to get a word in edgewise? Also, during the audition rounds, the decision of whether someone makes it "through to Hollywood" often comes down to a 2-to-1 tiebreaker. For instance, Simon says no, but buddy-buddies Paula and Randy say yes. (Those two always agree.) So what is going to happen when it's two against two? Will they flip a coin? Do rock-paper-scissors? Let Ryan cast the tie-breaker vote? This could get complicated...
WILD CARDS RETURN
OK, this is one change I am very, very psyched about. It's not really even a change, so much as it is the reinstatement of a grand old Idol tradition. Back in the day, the judges were allowed to save contestants they thought had gotten the boot too soon, by bringing them back to the finals as "wild cards." Please note that two of American Idol's greatest all-time underdogs, Clay Aiken and Jennifer Hudson, were both wild-card picks...so without this old policy, J.Hud probably would've never won that Oscar, and Clay's coming-out party would have never made the cover of People. Oh, if only such a policy had never been discontinued in the first place, then Danny Noriega may have been invited back last season. I suggest the judges invite Danny back this season (hey, why not? I still haven't quite given up on the Noriega cause...), but even if that never happens, the return of the wild cards will surely keep things interesting. And it will provide second chances for the gone-too-soon singers who deserve them.
FEWER BAD AUDITONS
American Idol is sort of like of two shows in one, with actually very separate audiences. Audience #1 tunes in for the early, trainwrecky episodes, the ones on which delusional freaks born without a sense of shame or melody gussy themselves up in Big Bird suits; caterwaul like sickly cats in season; get told, "It's a no, dawg"; then storm out of the audition room sticking their middle fingers in poor Ryan Seacrest's Botox'd face. It's fabulous entertainment, of course--so fabulous that many viewers tune out once the show gets "serious" and starts to focus on, you know, actual decent singing. That's when Audience #2, the voting audience, takes over. Anyhoo, despite past "successful" rejects like William Hung and Renaldo Lapuz (and entire clip-show specials and home DVDs devoted to awful-audition outtakes), this season the Idol powers-that-be have elected to cut down on the overall number of "bad audition" episodes. Sadly, the next William Hung is probably out there--he bangs! he bangs!--ready for his close-up, but he may end up on the cutting room floor as a result of this directional shift. Why the change? Well, I am just going to make a wild guess here: I think it's the Paula Goodspeed Effect. Paula Goodspeed was a season 5 reject with a mouthful of metal (and bum notes)--and, it just so happened, she had been stalking her own idol Paula Abdul for years. Abdul even allegedly begged the show's producers not to let Goodspeed audition, but the Idol folks knew this troubled girl would make for "good TV." And sure, she did. But...now she's dead. She committed suicide near Abdul's home late last year, thus re-sparking debate that Idol exploits the mentally ill for, as Abdul worded it, "entertainment value." So I'm guessing that maybe, just maybe, the producers decided to avoid future public wrath--and possible lawsuits--by weeding out the truly certifiable nutjobs. I admit I'll miss some the rubbernecking sideshow action as a result--but if this move keeps a few people from going off the deep end like Goodspeed, then so be it.
MORE HOLLYWOOD WEEK
"You're through to Hollywood, dawg!" Those are the words every aspiring Idol wants to hear. But what happens after the contestants grab that golden ticket to L.A.? It's hard to say, because last season, Hollywood Week was a mere two-episode blur--with the show's editors spending so much time focusing on contestants who didn't even make the final cut (Josiah Leming, Kyle Ensley) that when the final 24 were actually selected, some of them were practically unrecognizable, having received no screen time. (Like, remember poor little Garrett Haley? The first time viewers laid eyes on him was in fact on the finalist selection episode, when Simon told him he'd made it--and all of America collectively said, "Huh? Who dat?") So this season, there will be more Hollywood Week episodes, and the number of semifinalists making it out of Hollywood Week will go up from 24 to 36. That means many more talented singers will actually have the chance to develop fanbases before the crucial call-in voting begins. Unlike Garrett Haley.
NO MORE GENDER BIAS
I'm feeling good about this development, too. In recent seasons, the top 12 have been evenly divided: six boys, six girls. Ditto for 12 males and 12 females in the top 24 semi-finals. I'm all for gender equality, of course, but I always thought this particular policy was unfair, since in any given season there is usually one gender that dominates. So producers being sticklers about gender quotas always ensured that a few great contestants didn't make it through simply because they had the misfortune of being equipped with the wrong, um, plumbing. The finals should always be packed with the best singers, period, regardless of the number of X and Y chromosomes they possess.
IDOL TAKES BACK
The Idol Gives Back allstar charity event is always one of the season's highlights. But, um, now it's going to be the highlight of every other season. That's right, there will be no Idol Gives Back special this year--it will return in season 9 (assuming there is a season 9, of course) and after that become a bi-yearly event. Why? Dunno. Maybe because in these times of economic hardship, people are less likely to have spare cash lying around to donate? And maybe it's just too darn expensive for the Idol camp to put on such a massive production right now? But in times like these, don't the world's poor and feeble need Idol to give back more than ever before? I say, if they can afford a fourth judge's salary, they can afford to throw another Idol Gives Back bash. But then again, the public shouldn't need Carrie Underwood begging for donations or Robin Williams delivering a painfully unfunny standup routine in order to remember those less fortunate.
All right, so those are the big changes we'll see when season 8 launches on Tuesday, January 13. Will the show be new and improved, or will it be as lame as that one final shark-jumpinh season of Laverne & Shirley without Shirley? Either way, you know I'll still be watching.