Kinder, Sweeter 'American Idol' Just Did Something Sort of Shockingly Cruel and Awful

Clueless Contestants Were Put on Buses to ... Where? Stay Tuned

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Ryan Seacrest in the hangar, before the buses
Ryan Seacrest in the hangar, before the buses Credit: Fox

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:

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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