October 21, 2007

TV: The Next Great American Band (Fox, Friday 8/7)

It's a little hard to judge a competition show based solely on its audition episode, but the 2-hour premiere of Next Great American Band makes some significant changes -- almost all of them for the good -- to the American Idol template.

To begin with, this is the only audition episode we're going to get, unlike Idol, which drags its audition process on for several weeks, visiting every city on the tour. By contrast, Band leaps straight to the semi-final, with 60 bands invited to Las Vegas to compete for twelve spots in the finals.

That also means that we spend much less time trotting out untalented contestants solely for the purpose of being laughed at. That's not to say that all of the 60 semifinalists were equally talented -- some of them were quite awful -- but those bands were given relatively little airtime, and there were only a handful of cheap insult jokes at their expense. More often, the judges simply dismissed those bands with a quick "Next!"

The judges fall neatly into Idol's Simon/Paula/Randy pattern. In the Simon role, we have Ian "Dicko" Dickson, a judge on Australian Idol. Our nurturing female judge is Sheila E., and the third chair is filled by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. None of the judges (even Dicko) is ever as gratuitously unkind as Simon can be; none is as vapidly gushing and supportive as Paula. All three offer serious, substantive, useful criticism. We didn't see lots of host Dominic Bowden, imported from New Zealand Idol, but he seems to have the appropriate level of bland enthusiasm.

While not all of the twelve finalist bands are to my liking, the average level of talent is clearly higher than we've ever gotten on any season of Idol; there's not a Sanjaya in the bunch. I'm also happy that we've wound up with a mix of different styles -- three country/bluegrass bands, a Philly R&B group, a swingin' big band, an all-girl punk-rock-lite band, a 60s-retro pop band, and several assorted rock acts. (My early pick to actually get a decent career out of this, whether they win or not, is the country band Sixwire.)

The competition begins next week in another two-hour episode, during which each band will reportedly give us an original tune and a Dylan cover. I'm looking forward to it.

No comments: