A few weeks ago, when Sam Woolf was still competing on American Idol, Harry Connick Jr. told the handsome teenager to look directly at someone in the audience when he heard screams and smile at that person. Woolf tried it, and the camera cut to his grandparents.
That moment encapsulated the problem with Idol in Season 13, which ends this week with a performance show and star-studded results finale (Fox, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT). No matter how much the show’s producers tried to present these singers as the voices of young America, no matter how full they packed the front of the house with screaming girls, this season’s competition boiled down to a bunch of kids singing for their elders.
Sure, half the show’s ever-dwindling viewership is eligible for AARP membership, but that’s not the only problem. For much of the season, the contestants performed with the mildly desperate look of people hoping to earn the approval of authority figures — their moms and dads, their grandparents, the three judges in their mid-40s.
Caleb Johnson — the 23-year-old rocker from North Carolina who’s one of the two remaining finalists, along with Jena Irene — based his appeal on a style of music that fell from fashion two decades ago. Woolf, 18, appeared panicked by the idea that all those girls clamoring for his attention might actually desire him. Alex Preston and Jessica Meuse thrived on praise but just couldn’t generate enough viewer enthusiasm to stick around.
Idol did some things right after last year’s disastrous run, remembered primarily for the constant bickering between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. It found articulate judges who had a natural rapport. It licensed more contemporary songs. It finally allowed the singers’ downloads to chart on iTunes. Unfortunately, it also had perhaps the most amateurish batch of finalists in the series’ history, contestants who barely knew where to look when the cameras were on, much less command an…