Friday, February 18, 2011

American Idol and the Art of Storytelling

I'm not sure anyone else is still watching American Idol, but I'm quite enjoying the new judges and whatnot. But my mom and I have decided that what's really needed is an overhaul in the editing department--by which we mean the people who craft all the narratives that get created around the idol wannabes. The problem is this: American Idol confuses melodrama and sentimentality with good storytelling (just like many an intro to creative writing student) Melodrama--look at all the terrible things that happen to people!--and sentimentality--cry for me, terrible things have happened to me!--are being employed to try to shortcut viewers into caring about the "characters". It doesn't work. On the other hand, the storyline the other night, in which a baby-faced fifteen year old, Jacee was cut from his group in the middle of the night leaving him stranded actually made for a good story. Why? Because the "villain"--the guy, Junebug who decided to cut Jaycee was 1) a likeable, kind of funny looking, talented singer who 2) did a bad thing for a good reason. Jacee, by all appearances, couldn't project enough. He was going to mess up. The group was probably better without him. So good reason. But Jacee is really young (vulnerability!) and it was really late in the game to cut someone (cruelty!). So bad thing. As a result, I could understand why the group wanted to cut him but I felt really bad for him when they actually did it... and so I became invested in what would happen next. Would Jacee find a new group? Would Junebug be punished for his wrongdoing? ... suspense! tension! a narrative that wasn't backstory (like most of what the show tries to use for characterization) and in which the characters were active agents in the story (as opposed to victims of circumstance). And even better, it turned out there was a group that needed another when they took Jacee in, it was not just because they felt sorry for him, they had needs of their own (characters always have needs of their own). And when Jacee messed up with the new group, he still got voted through to the next round...why? because he had a story! People felt for him! Probably if he hadn't gotten kicked out of his old group, he would have been sent home... Now in all of this, Jacee was a somewhat passive character--he got kicked out of one group and pulled into another as opposed to quitting a group and joining another, but he remained interesting because of his reaction to the events. He was obviously hurt by it, but he was so dignified (which contrasted wonderfully with his babyface) and tried to act unemotional but the tears kept sneaking up on him. He was the exact opposite of the hysterical, incredibly annoying people that American Idol keeps putting on the show for drama. (again confusing drama with melodrama). So, my point is, and American Idol producers should take note (alert the media!)'s very hard to create characters if you don't give them a story to operate in. You want us to care about these wannabes, give them a narrative in which they are active participants who engage in recognizable and understandable human emotions.

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