‘American Idol’ Should Not Have Messed With The Formula

It’s still a little early, but now that we’re on the cusp of the first set of big eliminations on “American Idol,” it may be time to start panicking. As any show aficionado will admit to you, the ninth season of “American Idol” has been pretty flat so far. It isn’t so much the contestants (the first week is always a little jittery, and there was so much promise shown during the audition and Hollywood Week episodes that they’ll have to come around sooner or later).

Sadly, the big problem with this season of “American Idol” is squarely at the judges’ table. In the second year of the Kara DioGuardi experiment, she continues to deliver very little. And perhaps shockingly, Ellen DeGeneres has brought very little to the proceedings, offering up little more than passive praise, labored metaphors meant to be comedy bits and a total lack of chemistry with the rest of the group. When you combine that with the fact that Simon Cowell seems bored all the time, you get a drama-free show.

Those issues haven’t necessarily stopped people from watching (even with record numbers coming in for the Winter Olympics, “Idol” is still pulling in a robust audience), but it’s perhaps looking like the producers should have ponied up for whatever Paula Abdul was asking for. Even though she became known as the judge who delivered blanket praise, Paula was actually the wild card of the group. You never quite knew what she was going to say or do, and the intrigue surrounding her contributions (not to mention the tension between her and Cowell) made for great television even when the singing was bland. Without her there, the show has become … well, sort of boring.

The lesson: Don’t mess with the formula. Television audiences are creatures of habit, and the slightest shift in any direction (especially on a show that has been proven to work) can totally upend an otherwise excellent show. The producers of “American Idol” should have learned that lesson from the shows below — and they should keep it in mind once Cowell exits at the end of this season.

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
Will Smith’s world-conquering sitcom rolled along for three seasons until the role of Vivian Banks was re-cast. It wasn’t so much that new actress Daphne Reid wasn’t as good as Janet Hubert-Whitten (though she wasn’t). The real problem was that all of a sudden the Vivian character became a completely different individual, shifting from a tough-minded career woman to a wallflower of a homemaker. Coupled with the arrival of Baby Nicky — who started to take up more and more time on the show — and you get a far less interesting series. It continued on for three more seasons, but most fans only acknowledge the first Aunt Viv.

“The Dukes of Hazzard”
The hit series about the backwater misadventures of Bo and Luke Duke was a hit, but in one of the stranger cases in television history, the charismatic pair were replaced by cousins Coy and Vance for an entire season of the show. The logic on the show was that Bo and Luke had left to race in NASCAR, but the actual reason for the switch was that stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider walked out over a contractual dispute. Regardless, the replacements didn’t quite work. Even though they looked a lot like Bo and Luke and the same writers were cranking out scripts, it just wasn’t the same. Ratings dipped, and Bo and Luke were brought back (presumably because their racing careers had fizzled).

“Saved by the Bell”
The original series — a sorta-hit by ’90s standards and certainly a prolonged source of nostalgia for many — faced a difficult casting decision when stars Tiffani Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley bolted for greener pastures before the “graduation” season began. To fill in the blank left by the show’s two big female stars, they introduced biker chick Tori into the proceedings. Those episodes have faded into memory, and they were made almost entirely irrelevant because Thiessen and Berkley were in the graduation finale with no mention of Tori. All told, without Kelly and Jesse, the show fell apart.

“The Real World”
“The Real World” essentially invented reality television a decade before it became the dominant theme on TV, but it changed dramatically a few seasons in. In the beginning, it was simply a sociological experiment that was essentially a show about people arguing. But following the fourth season (which was in London, and was almost completely static), the producers introduced the idea of forcing the cast members to work together (usually on some sort of business idea). It went from letting arguments happen to introducing reasons to argue, which made the show a little bit more contrived. Hardcore “Real World” scholars only consider the first four seasons the “real” versions of the show.

“Twin Peaks”
Even though “Twin Peaks” was a hit for bizarro filmmaker David Lynch, there was pressure from the network to solve the mystery that held the show together. Lynch intended the mystery to continue ad infinitum, so once the question was answered, it simply became a character study for the weirdos who inhabited the town. Lynch left, the tone shifted, a bevy of unwanted new characters showed up and the show was canceled after its second season.

“The Brady Bunch”
Nearly 30 years later, everybody still hates Cousin Oliver.

What do you think? What do you consider the worst shift in TV history? Do you think “American Idol” can survive this?