We at Tuned In headquarters are not made of stone. Watching the two-hour Idol Gives Back special last night with Mrs. Tuned In, we genuinely ached for the AIDS orphans in Kenya, the New Orleans kids–nearly two years after Katrina–living in conditions still stunning and unconscionable in a rich country, the African babies dying of malaria. So while there were elements of the special that one could snark about on a pure TV-entertainment level, I will bite my tongue in the spirit of charity. Il Divo, Paula Abdul, Celine Dion and the resurrected ghost of Elvis, you may sit down: you are safe.
Still, as for the competition itself: the whole nonelimination thing? Little bit of a ripoff, no? Does it make me a bad person to say it? Clearly it would have been jarring to send somebody home on a night of inspiration and good feelings; as I wrote yesterday, mixing competition with charity was weird enough. (And props to Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly, who totally called the everyone’s-safe twist yesterday.) But why string along the audience for two hours–three if you count Tuesday–not to mention needlessly torturing Jordin into believing she was on the chopping block?
Because otherwise millions of people wouldn’t have watched the telethon or donated. Well, whatever. Maimonides said the lowest form of charity is that given unwillingly, but Robin Hood had a different opinion, and in the end it all spends, on anti-HIV medicine and education.
My real worry is, what does this mean for next year? They can’t pull the same surprise twice. Does this mean Idol Gives Back is a one-time deal? That would be too bad, because as telethons go, it was not a bad piece of TV. Yeah, there were cheesy, manipulative moments and live-TV foulups, but Jack Black killed performing Seal’s Kiss from a Rose, as did Annie Lennox with her more-earnest Bridge Over Troubled Waters.
And money aside, Idol’s ruse got millions of people to watch a two-hour TV show about poverty, probably more exposure to the problems of Africa, Appalachia and the post-Katrina Gulf than many viewers have gotten this year from the news. Idol may not exactly be Frontline, but–as it shows in some of its audition-round vignettes–it can do pretty good slice-of-life storytelling when it wants to. Some of the most affecting moments were not the heartbreaking tales of death, but the scenes–heartbreaking in their own way–of poor American and African kids trying, in spite of everything, to still be kids.
It may go against journalistic impartiality to say it, but I even took a break from taking my cynical little notes to go online and pledge. Maybe Idol got me there under false pretenses. But I still don’t want my money back.