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

Yesterday, I wrote about 11 ways "American Idol" is better than "So You Think You Can Dance". Today, I'm doing the opposite: Writing about the 11 ways that "SYTYCD" is superior to "Idol".

  1. Garrett Haley: Nice, likable kid. Complete victim of zero pre-top-24 hype on "Idol".
    Less correlation between audition round hype and ultimate success. At this point, we all know the formula: "Idol" and "SYTYCD" divide the time in their audition rounds between showing us some delusional losers and showing us some of the best talent. The good people in those rounds are, basically, anointed as members of the top 24 by the producers... thanks to that early exposure, they start building fan bases early, which gives them a gigantic leg up on the contestants who don't get shown until later in the season.

    Both shows do it but the effect is much, much stronger on "Idol".

    Nine times out of 10, people without any pre-top 24 exposure on "Idol" are dead in the water... if not on the first week, then by the third week, right before they move to the big stage with the top 12.

    It happens like that sometimes on "SYTYCD"... but three things give hype-less contestants a much better chance. One: The hype is generally mellower than on "Idol", so people don't go in with quite the same size fan bases. Two: An exposure-free contestant can be teamed up with a hyped contestant, which raises their profile. And three: The judges, not the fans, make the ultimate decision on who stays and who goes for the first few top 24 weeks of "SYTYCD", so they can save a non-hyped but talented contestant, who then gets a few weeks to build the fan base to win votes.

    And all that's a good advantage for "SYTYCD", since it feels like we're only being 99% manipulated by the producers into liking their Chosen Ones... as opposed to "Idol", where it's clearly 100%.

  2. More tangible criticism. At this point, the criticism offered by the judges on "Idol" is a complete joke. They say pitchy, they say song selection... they say nothing of value. They're highly paid providers of white noise at this point.

    Maybe between the three of them they offer one piece of valuable piece of feedback. And when a singer tries to get Simon to help by saying, "What can I improve next week?" his response is usually useless snarky non-advice like "Pick a better song and sing better."

    It's very different on "SYTYCD". The judges aren't immune to drivel -- the popular "the technique may not have been all the way there but I enjoyed it" critique is just frustrating -- but they DO offer real advice.

    They point out different moments in a dance that we, the non-dancing audience, might not have seen... but their notes, which come from a place of knowledge, enlighten us while simultaneously teaching the dancers.

    "SYTYCD" also greatly benefits from not doing its performance show live, so that when a judge critiques a certain moment in the dance, they can actually show a replay of that moment on screen, which adds a whole extra dimension of clarity for the viewers.

  3. Nigel and Mary better judges than Simon and Paula. Simon is way too eager to slip into baseless criticism mode. It keeps his praise more meaningful, but it also cheapens him overall when he clearly... and arbitrarily... chooses to bash a seemingly good performance without offering any tangible reason why. His "I can hear that in any karaoke bar/cruise ship/talent show" jab is played out and, again, so arbitrary.

    And Paula... well, we all know the criticism of Paula.

    Nigel and Mary are different. First off, they're both former professional dancers, who use that knowledge to offer a basis for their critiques.

    They're both prone to hyperbole and lame misdirection ("And I hated... ... ... ... ... NOTHING!")... but they also both seem genuinely interested in praising the good, pointing out the bad... and then trying to help improve on what went wrong.

    The element of constructive criticism, as I've said earlier, is completely absent in "Idol". It's very prevalent on "SYTYCD", and I think it helps people appreciate the show.

  4. Repeat auditioners. On the point of constructive criticism, it's clear that the "SYTYCD" city-by-city auditions aren't the farcical circus that the "Idol" auditions are. Because people come back.

    During the "Idol" auditions, we see awful people and good people. The awful people get blasted, the good people get worshiped.

    On the "SYTYCD" auditions, they show plenty of people who are good in their dance style but can't quite handle all the styles necessary for the show. The judges explain that, the people go off and get training... and they come back the next year.

    It adds a great running thread and bit of continuity to the seasons of "SYTYCD", because you know that people you liked... who just couldn't quite handle the show at that time... will be back. And it makes you think the auditions are more like actual auditions, and less like a month-long freakshow spectacle.

  5. Better mentors. The choreographers who work with the contestants on "SYTYCD" are world class. Frankly, it's shocking the big names and talented people they get to work on the show. And each contestant generally gets a chance to work with them. It leads to great dance routines and clearly great experience for the contestants.

    The "Idol" concept of bringing in a super-famous mentor every week is, and always has been, useless. The contestants get, like, a half hour with Dolly Parton or Mariah Carey or whomever. They get a little advice -- which, it looks like, they often ignore -- and then they work with the same "Idol" vocal coach.

    Seeing the "SYTYCD" contestants working with so many different hardcore choreographers is so, so much more entertaining than seeing an "Idol" contestant get a very brief sitdown with a music superstar. And leads to a better product during the performances, too.

  6. More diversity in each program. When "Idol" picks a shitty theme -- and boy, do they do that a few times a year like clockwork -- you're stuck with it. All night. So when they picked Neil Sedaka night, I was stuck with Neil Sedaka songs, even though I don't know them. Or want to hear them.

    Over the course of an "SYTYCD" performance show, you get it all. Hip-hop, salsa, Broadway, waltz, jazz... everything. If you don't like a genre of dance, it's over in 90 seconds and then they move on to something else.

    That variety keeps the show so much more interesting -- there's no locking you down with an awful theme and pounding you with it until finally, about three-quarters in, Randy goes, "Man, it's been a weird night tonight."


  7. Dances to songs like Lil Wayne's "A Millie" make me want to scream for the hot tamale train.
    Modern music. "Idol" rarely, if ever, deals with modern music. First off, it's tough to get the rights... and second off, it's super-risky for a contestant to sing a modern song, since inevitably the judges will compare them to the version that's out right now and tell them they didn't quite measure up.

    No such problem on "SYTYCD". You're hearing songs that are big from the past six decades -- and on any given program you'll hear a song that was big 60 years ago, a song that's big this week... and a new song you've never heard that intrigues you.

    And, as a bonus, they put the artist and title on screen, old school MTV-style, so you can track the song down easily.

    Having modern music makes the show feel much more in-the-now and much more in touch.

  8. Training video packages. The video packages before the contestants dance on "SYTYCD" are great. They show the pair with the choreographer, follow a storyline about the rehearsal... and simultaneously brief the audience on the dance while letting the contestants' personalities shine through.

    The "Idol" training video packages are lame, stilted interactions with the mentor or, even worse, the contestant telling us something we don't know about them (like their worst job, when they first started singing, or something even lamer still).

    The "SYTYCD" video packages are an integral and thoroughly entertaining part of the show. The "Idol" video packages are easily TiVo fast forwardable.

  9. The rotating judge. The "Idol" judging panel is famous but, as I've discussed earlier, they now range from monotonous to parodies of themselves. One of the best ways that "SYTYCD" avoids that is by bringing in a guest judge every week.

    It doesn't always work (Toni Basil was bizarre, Debbie Allen has no worthwhile criticism)... but it usually does. Dan Karaty is great and tells it how it is, as does Mia Michaels. Lil C was shockingly good. Adam Shankman people love or hate -- I love him as a judge.

    The rotating judge is also emblematic of the willingness to tweak the "SYTYCD" formula... something they're much more reluctant to do to their cash cow "Idol". The first "SYTYCD" season they just packed in the judges (Nigel, Mary, Mia, Dan and Brian Friedman) and it was way too much. So they tweaked the judging formula and completely nailed it.

  10. Way better group numbers. For seven years, the "Idol" results show has featured a group number... and for seven years, those group numbers have been awful. The top 12 always features some immature singers who can at least fake it on their own... but when you combine enough of them, the music sounds awful.

    The "SYTYCD" dance numbers don't have that problem. They're put together by spectacular choreographers. Unlike the harmonizing in singing, one or two rough dancers can't mess up the routine (the choreographer can work around them). And, most importantly, they work opposite the "Idol" group number style -- the routines aren't cheesy and they enhance the contestants instead of exposing their weaknesses.

  11. Better voting off system. I really like this aspect of "SYTYCD" -- for the first five weeks of the top 24, America votes three couples into the bottom three. Then the judges decide which two people are going home.

    By doing that, it guarantees a much, much superior group of talent standing at the end. Someone who doesn't instantly connect with the fans but has serious skills can survive... and have enough time to grow on the fans... because the judges can singlehandedly get that person to the top 10.

    In Season 3, Danny would've been voted off. This year, Will would've been. But they both had enough time to connect with the people... and impress on a weekly basis with their dancing... so they both made it deep.

    "Idol" doesn't self-regulate like that -- once it's the top 24, the fans are in control. And while I get the benefits of making it completely in the people's hands... ultimately, for the quality of the show, sometimes it's better to give democracy a few minutes on the bench.

This list was originally published on Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 01:07:20 AM under the category TV.
It currently has View Comments.

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