Bring On the Bad Guys

What’s probably the most egregious example of television as mindless drivel (well, besides Fear Factor, obviously) is premiering its second season tomorrow night: American Idol. And alas, despite my repeated condemnations, I’ll probably be sitting glued to the television (at least I’ll be reclining on a nice new oversized couch, enjoying a dram of Laphroaig).

I didn’t watch a minute of the first season (I add that time qualifier since Pam did watch a couple of the later performances, though I left the room before the completion of a single song). I think it’s symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with pop music; we take the manufactured artificiality of the industry and, rather than sweeping it under the rug, revel in it (a trend that started with the overproduced boy-band craze of the late eighties and has gotten more blatant ever since). In fact, the only reason I know anything about Idol is that I produced an end-of-year party video that was a satire (i.e., “rip-off”) of the show, and had to sit through gobs of footage from the original.

I don’t give a rat’s ass about the contestants. Nothing against them personally, but it’s hard for me to develop a lot of empathy for a bunch of perfect little twenty-somethings. (Side note to my largely twenty-something coworkers: I don’t mean you; you’re all very nice, but you’re not perfect, the primary criterion here). No, there’s only one reason I’ll be tuning in: The delightfully malevolent Simon Cowell.

I don’t know what it is that makes me cheer for the bad guys, but I’m certainly not alone; Fox clearly understands this — their advertising wisely focuses on Simon, not the parade of Idol wannabes. Half the reason the original Survivor was so compelling was that we wanted to see what the Machiavellian Richard Hatch was going to do next; rather than booing his eventual victory, we cheered him. The climax of the original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t Luke Skywalker defeating his ebon nemesis, but Darth Vader annihilating the one man who still held power over him (turning Vader into a whiny teenager completely undermined the very qualities that made him appealing).

Great storytellers have long recognized that our villains are equally as compelling as our heroes. Some you hate, but can’t help but admire for their unadulterated maliciousness: Professor Moriarty, Goldfinger, the Terminator, Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, Unbreakable’s Mister Glass. Some blur the line between hero and villain: Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone, Vincent Vega, Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.” Others you come right out and cheer for: Hannibal Lecter, Keyser Söze, the Gopher from Caddyshack. Hell, who saves everyone at the end of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? The T-Rex.

I guess it’s just fun to imagine that we could all set aside our ethical barriers and walk around unencumbered by morality. Evil may not be a great place to live, but it’s sure fun to visit once in a while.


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