11 Points

11 Ways American Idol is Better Than So You Think You Can Dance
written by Sam Greenspan

Tonight and tomorrow are the final two nights of this season of "So You Think You Can Dance"... which is, by far, my favorite reality show.

And even though it focuses on dancing... so a comparison to "Dancing with the Stars" might be more appropriate... I always find myself comparing "SYTYCD" to "American Idol" instead. They're more similar in format, they're both on FOX... and, most of all, they're the two signature shows of 19 Entertainment (Simon Fuller, Nigel Lythgoe and company).

Today, I'm going to focus on the 11 ways that "American Idol" is better than "So You Think You Can Dance". Tomorrow, I'm going to flip it, and do the 11 ways that "SYTYCD" is superior to "Idol".

For now, here's where "Idol" rules...

  1. Not since "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place" has a show title been so clearly DOA.
    A one billion times superior title. "American Idol" is a brilliant title, and makes the show feel epic. That is the title of a number one show. "So You Think You Can Dance" is one of the worst titles ever for a successful TV show. It had to succeed in spite of that title.

    What if Don Maclean had called "American Pie" something like "So You Wanna Drive Your Chevy To a Levy To Gauge Its Water Levels"?

    Or the movie "American Gangster" was "So You Think You Can Be a Black Guy Who Smuggles Drugs From Vietnam and Sell Them at a Huge Profit Thus Creating a Major Drug Empire Until Inevitably Stuff Starts Going Wrong and an Australian Guy Struggling To Fake an American Accent Takes You Down But Then You Help Him Catch Corrupt Cops So It's All Good"?

    To this day, four seasons later, the title "So You Think You Can Dance" cheapens the show, shrinks its profile and keeps tons of non-teenagers from watching out of pure pride. Disastrous decision.

  2. Ryan versus Cat. Ryan Seacrest takes a ton of heat, but, from what I can tell, it's Ryan's hosting ability and his personality that sets the tone on "Idol". And that tone is a loose, risky and you-never-know-what-the-hell-could-happen-next feeling that works in tandem with live TV to turn every episode of "Idol" into a must-see event.

    Cat Deeley has grown on me. In her first season (which was the second "SYTYCD" season), I found her incredibly grating. But she's eased pretty well into her role, which is mostly to be a benevolent, pro-contestant giantess.

    Still, except on her irritating extra questions to the judges between their remarks, she REALLY feels like she's reading a teleprompter.

    Seacrest is reading one too, but you never believe he's going to stay on it. So just like his hosting style makes "Idol" thrillingly reckless, Cat's hosting style makes "SYTYCD" feel a bit over-rehearsed.

  3. An infinitely better grand prize. From the day "Idol" started, we knew the prize: Win this thing and you get a major label recording contract. It's simple, it's easy and it's a once-in-a-lifetime dream-come-true prize.

    There's no equivalent for the world of dance (at least not one that would seem like a cool prize to someone outside the world of dance). Absolutely none. So they've constantly tried to tweak the prize to make it seem on par with "Idol".

    Last season and this, the winner got/gets $250,000 and the title of "America's Favorite Dancer" -- or, in other words, the winner gets $250,000.

    In season one of "SYTYCD", the winner got $100,000 and one year in an apartment in NYC. (By the way -- what?) Season two, the winner got $100,000, a hybrid SUV and a one-year contract to be a background dancer in Celine Dion's Vegas show.

    And therein lies the problem. The best contract they could figure out was to be a backup dancer. The winner of "Idol" is a major solo lead singer. And, in the world of major prizes, those just aren't comparable.

  4. Much more relevant. One of my favorite parts of "Idol" is watching the fame arc of the contestants. The transformation to one struggling singer out of tens of thousands in the crowd to grateful auditioner to singing on national TV to becoming a household name... all in the span of a few months... continues to be enthralling.

    And that happens because "Idol" is bigger, so its reach extends much farther and its contestants become more pop relevant. Sure, when someone from "SYTYCD" goes to the mall, they probably get recognized.

    But it's not the "Idol"-mania that adds a whole extra dimension to the competition and the viewing experience.

    It also contributes to what I said in the prize discussion above, about "Idol" really having a lot more of the American dream-come-true feeling than "SYTYCD".

  5. Way better scandals. Along the lines of relevance, "Idol" always has better scandals. "Idol" has the best scandals. Because the performers become more relevant, digging around and finding a skeleton in their closet is muckracking journalism gold.

    A good "Idol" scandal -- a porn past, an arrest record, secretly banging Paula Abdul -- is top of CNN.com news. A comparable "SYTYCD" scandal might temporarily sit on top of Perez Hilton (until he finds a photo of Patrick Dempsey, MSPaints some fake semen dribbling off him and publishes that into the top spot).

    And, let's all be honest here -- in the celebrity gossip climate that exists today, the show with better scandals is the show with the advantage.

  6. Less overhyping by the judges. Both the "Idol" judges and "SYTYCD" judges overhype the performances. But the "SYTYCD" judges overhype performances much earlier in the season and to a much, much greater level.

    My friend JD and I really like watching "SYTYCD" and pointing out what we call the hyperbole pause. That's when Mary or Nigel is about to compliment a performance and decide mid-sentence just how much to overhype it.

    Example: When Nigel says "That's the best hip-hop routine I've seen on this stage [hyperbole pause] this season." In that case, he took the hyperbole pause to decide: Should I say this season? Tonight? By two contemporary dancers? In the past few seasons? Ever?

    At least when Simon praises something, it still holds a lot of weight. He's not immune to hyperbole, but he does keep the judging panel from just flying off the handle with effusive praise. Nigel is not that rock for the "SYTYCD" panel. Both Mia Michaels and Dan Karaty do a better job... but they aren't on there every week.

  7. Closer to pro level. Every year, I feel like "Idol" has about three or four finalists who are professional-quality singers. They have natural gifts and have received training, and are ready to make albums and perform.

    Dancing takes a little more time. It takes a lot more training. And I feel like each year, there's one, maybe two, dancers on "SYTYCD" who are ready to become legitimate pros.

    This year, I think Will was the only one. The year before, Danny and maybe Sabra. The year before that, maybe Travis.

    There was no clearer illustration than in Week Five of this year's "SYTYCD", when, on the results show, three guys from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed... and instantly made the performers on the show (even Will) look like amateurs.

    Maybe it's because it's a little easier to fake it in the music world, but I never feel like when a guest star performs on "Idol" that they completely obliterate all of the contestants.

  8. No inferiority complex. "Idol" is number one and knows it is. There's no need to feel inferior or mention other reality shows.

    "SYTYCD" isn't the number one dance show on TV -- that's "Dancing with the Stars". And Nigel can't help himself but always mention that. Always mention how his stage has the best dancing on TV. How choreographers are smart to switch over to his show. How happy he is that "SYTYCD" is out there to introduce America to new styles of dance.

    The "SYTYCD" inferiority complex is boring, tired and unnecessary. It also can have the effect of making the audience uneasy -- when I'm sitting at home being reminded by a British guy who doth protest too much that I'm not betting on the best horse in the race, there's a chance that's going to push me to the better horse.

  9. No need to ridiculously push the envelope. I like that the choreographers on "SYTYCD" are continually trying new things to make better, fancier, flashier, more memorable routines. But it's painfully obvious that "SYTYCD" is about to crash into Jump the Shark land, and that crash could come as soon as next season.

    It reminds me of "Pimp My Ride". The first season was cool, they added some nice stuff to people's cars, redid the exteriors, and everyone was entertained and happy. Then the second season they started pushing the envelope every week until they were installing refrigerators and 45 TVs and full service laundromats inside of people's 1988 Toyota Tercels. And then there was nowhere left to go and the show quickly died.

    "Idol" isn't struggling with pushing the envelope. They pick a theme, they bring in a mentor and the contestants sing. There's no desire to make the music crazier -- there's no reggae week or Daft Punk week or anything like that. It's basically the same formula as they used season one (just with more celebrity guests) -- and there's no need to go crazier to the point of audience exhaustion.

  10. Would they turn this into an autoerotic asphyxiation joke?
    A less insidious brand of homophobia. Both shows have their own unique style of homophobia, and that's a bad thing. However, in my opinion, Nigel's homophobia on "SYTYCD" is much worse than Ryan, Randy and Simon's homophobia on "Idol"... because it's much more insidious, and, therefore, much more likely to slip into people's consciousness as being "acceptable."

    Ryan, Randy and Simon make gay jokes on "Idol". Ryan mentions Simon's tight-fitting V-neck sweater, Simon responds "Why are you obsessed with staring at my chest?" and Randy starts yelling that it's a lover's quarrel. It's sophomoric, middle school level "you're gay, no you're gay" stuff. It's not good, but it's not something that, at this point in the evolution of society, should trigger or stoke any deep-seeded anti-gay bias in anyone's mind.

    Nigel's homophobia on "SYTYCD" comes from a much darker place, and comes out of his frequent compliment to male dancers that "You dance like a man."

    In an interview, when Nigel was asked to clarify why he says that, he responded, "Iím never worried if anybodyís gay. What I donít like on the dance show, to be frank, is effeminate boys that mince around the stage. I donít care if theyíre gay or straight... Dancing is role-playing most of the time. And you need to be strong and lift girls. You need to look stronger than the girl youíre dancing with. You control the dance, especially in ballroom. So if you mince about the stage, youíre not doing what the choreographer is asking you to do."

    This whole stance... and his confusion between sexuality, gender and gender roles... was covered brilliantly here.

    To sum up why this is more problematic to me than the "Idol" playground-style gay jokes: This is much more real. This statement isn't outwardly homophobic, and, since Nigel, as an expert on dance, says it with so much conviction, it's fairly conceivable that someone watching will assimilate the dance-like-a-man-don't-mince-like-a-gay-guy concept into their beliefs.

    And, in the process, a seed of subtle anti-gay bias is unknowingly formed. Which is a real, serious problem.

  11. Somehow, even less bloat. This season, almost every single performance show for "SYTYCD" was two hours and every results show was one hour. It's beyond overkill. Frankly, it's too much. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

    During the summer, FOX has time to play with. So "SYTYCD" just runs wild and completely dominates Wednesday and Thursday. During the regular TV season, FOX has other programs to worry about, so "Idol" can be cut shorter to try to use it to launch the show after it.

    People always say the "Idol" shows feel bloated. If that's the case, then the "SYTYCD" shows suffer from hyperobesity.

Tomorrow: The rebuttal.

This post was originally published on Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 01:06:58 AM under the category TV.

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