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Jim Bennett: Has 'American Idol' lost its way?

Published: Wednesday, July 3 2013 5:27 p.m. MDT

Winner Candice Glover, left, and runner up Kree Harrison perform at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Matt Sayles, Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

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Well, I'm a big shot now. You have my permission to be impressed.

Behold an actual email I received that confirmed my official big-shottery.

"Good afternoon! Hope you're doing well! We noticed your great TV articles on DeseretNews.com and would love to invite you to cover the AMERICAN IDOL Season 13 Auditions in Salt Lake City …."

At first, I checked to see if this was being sent by some dethroned Nigerian prince or somebody offering prescription-free prescription drugs. But no! It's someone with a fox.com email address — not someone anyone has heard of, mind you, but legit enough to make it past the spam filter. I'm holding out hope that since they've burned through all their other judges, they're going to ask me to sit in for Randy Jackson now that he's the last of the original "Idol" trio to hit the road. I'd be an entirely adequate replacement — I can say "it was a little pitchy in spots" and "it was just all right for me, dawg" in three different languages.

Truth is, however, I lost interest in "Idol" after local favorite David Archuleta failed to take the top spot way back in Season 7. Archuleta had been pre-emptively declared the winner by Simon Cowell after his final three performances, and I assured my then-6-year-old twin boys that the Utah kid was going to end up in the winner's circle. And when he didn't, my son Samuel was inconsolable. As he said his bedtime prayers that night, he asked heaven to "please bless that David Archuleta and not David Cook won American Idol." Not sure if any prayers to retroactively fix talent contests have ever been honored, but, hey, you can't blame a guy for trying.

But that was the appeal of "Idol" back in those days. It was easy to get emotionally involved in the outcome. You weren't just invested in the talent; you were enthralled by the personalities. The show went out of its way to make you care about these people as people, not just performers.

But it was also entirely ruthless, both in positive and negative ways. Ultimately, contestants were forced to rely solely on their talent and skill, and the judgment of the voters demanded excellence that couldn't be faked for long. That kind of competition brings out the best and the worst in people, and "Idol" wasn't shy about broadcasting both extremes.

That's especially true in the audition phase, when the producers prey on the vulnerable talentless, cruelly exploiting their delusions in order to provide cheap laughs. For a show that's ostensibly designed to highlight excellence, they spend way too much time mocking the hapless and, in the process, degrading themselves and the audience at home. Morally speaking, "Idol" is much better as a talent show than a freak show.

At least that was true six years ago when I was still watching. I'm not sure why I checked out when I did, but it seems America is losing interest, too. It could be the revolving door of celebrity judges, but I think it's more than that. Other shows, notably "The Voice," seem to have mastered the better parts of the "American Idol" formula that the "Idol" producers have either neglected or forgotten entirely. The newer shows steer clear of mockery and focus solely on the singing. Over the years, "American Idol" has lost sight of that formula and lost its way in the process.

Don't worry, though. I'll be sure to tell them that on July 11 when I show up to cover the auditions. That'll fix everything.

I'm a big shot, remember?

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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