In its 13th season, Fox's "American Idol" is supposed to be a "sweeter" and "happier place," as The Washington Post's Emily Yahr wrote last month, all the better to fend off competition from NBC's big-hearted "The Voice." With a refreshed panel of gracious judges -- new addition Harry Connick Jr., former judge Jennifer Lopez (from seasons 10 and 11) and returning season-12 judge Keith Urban -- producers hoped that viewers might forget about last season's nastiness, when judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj clashed while poor Urban looked on. (The season became AT&T's last as a sponsor, and its finale drew just 14.3 million viewers, the first time an "Idol" finale did not get 20 million people since the show began in 2002.)
Which is why last night's "Hollywood or Home" procedural plot twist had many viewers taken aback. As in previous seasons, contestants were flown to Hollywood to perform during "Hollywood Week," but this time, upon landing at LAX, they were all taken to an airplane hangar instead of to their hotel. At the hangar, 52 of the 212 contestants -- those the judges weren't entirely convinced deserved to move on -- were made to sing on the spot.
The performers didn't immediately learn whether they had sufficiently pleased the judges to continue in the competition. Instead, rather astonishingly, they were told to board one of two buses waiting outside the hangar. Where to? The twist was that they'd only find out as they neared or arrived at their destination -- either the "Idol" hotel, meaning they'd survived, or right back to the airport, where they'd be sent straight home.
Cameras on each bus recorded the agonizing suspense. The 32 clueless losers on Bus No. 1 only realized their collective fate when they spotted LAX exit signs on the road ahead. As USA Today's Brian Mansfield wrote, "Maybe it was a cost-cutting move -- that's 32 people who didn't need hotel rooms, even for one night." He added that, "By episode's end, viewers probably felt as exhausted as the singers, having survived a hellish two-hour show."
The reaction among "Idol" viewers on Twitter was generally one of disgust. Some sample tweets as the bus-to-broken-dreams scenario played out last night:
Damn American Idol is getting cold blooded. Sending those people back home on that bus was harsh.— Pepper Pratt (@MsPepperDawn) February 6, 2014
that bus thing on american idol was evil— M (@EmilyDybowski) February 6, 2014
That American Idol bus thing was kinda cruel...— Maysa Abbas (@maysa_abbas) February 6, 2014
That bus stunt on American Idol makes me super excited for for The Voice!! Shatter someone's dream then torture them too- not cool.— Emily-Anne Woodall (@EwizDaBuggyBug) February 6, 2014
And just like that.. I turn off American Idol. Put people on a bus but don't tell them if they made it. That's wrong.— Bill Hall (@B_Effing_Hall) February 6, 2014
@AmericanIdol That f****** hanger, and bus thing was morally reprehensible ! F*** American Idol.— Winston Smith (@lion00713) February 6, 2014
The whole bus 1 and 2 on American idol tonight was just mean. Made for very uncomfortable tv. And not in an edgy cool way #AmericanIdol— Hassan Sheheryar (@HSYCOUTUREKING) February 6, 2014
Whoever thought of that bus plan on American idol is an evil dick— Julie (@JulieKoroscil) February 6, 2014
American Idol hits a new low. Psychological torture! Bus #1 at least deserved to be sent home by one of the judges. :( #americanidol— DSLivingston (@elegantspell) February 6, 2014
American Idol sure does love throwing people on and under the bus.— YaminaC (@YaminaC) February 6, 2014
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.