For Fantasia, joyous march to the dream

May 27, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Much of it was canned emotion, of course, but you have to hand it to the producers of American Idol, they built to a killer climax in the final hour last night before announcing that 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino was the new American Idol.

And then they managed to take it a notch higher with a tearfully joyous Barrino closing the two-hour telecast singing "I Believe," the soaring, gospel-based ballad that has become the anthem of television's highest-rated show this year.

Host Ryan Seacrest said on air last night that a record 65 million votes were cast in the competition between Barrino and 16-year-old Diana DeGarmo. Unlike last year, when front-runner Clay Aiken lost in the final popular vote to Ruben Studdard, Barrino was just about everyone's favorite after bringing the audience at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles to its feet Tuesday night with renditions of "Summertime" and "I Believe."

Like NBC's The Apprentice, last night's two-hour finale was an hour and 55 minutes longer than needed. The results could have been dealt with in five minutes, just as Donald Trump could have announced who his apprentice was going to be. But with an audience of up to 35 million expected, there were ads to be sold at top dollar. Thus, Fox gave us a telecast that had its share of silly, sorry and padded moments.

A half-hour "pre-show" moved from red-carpet interviews with arriving celebrities such as Henry Winkler to backstage interviews conducted by Seacrest with DeGarmo, Barrino and judges Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell.

"So, are you really nervous, Diana?" was the level of question asked by Seacrest. There wasn't a moment of real emotion or genuine excitement.

But once the cameras moved inside the theater, and the two contestants took the stage for final performances individually and together, the show connected with the powerful currents of populism and hope that it so cleverly taps. In one sense, Cowell was right last night when he said, "This is the best talent show on Earth." But as a talent show, it runs deeper, exploiting some of our most fundamental beliefs about equal opportunity based on talent.

The show is constructed as a journey from anonymity to the promised land of celebrity and wealth at the heart of television's version of the American Dream. Every element of last night's final hour underscored that idea.

The star-studded Kodak Theatre was decked out to look like a magical kingdom at the end of a quest. Throughout the show, cameras took viewers back to North Carolina and Georgia to remind them where the journey started for Barrino and DeGarmo when they were just two of 70,000 contestants.

The feeling that the finalists had entered an elevated realm of fame and fortune was heightened by having Studdard and the first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, come onstage to perform with them. Every song they performed sounded themes of optimism, belief and overcoming obstacles on difficult journeys.

As the opening words of "I Believe," which was sung twice last night, put it: "I've waited all my life for this moment to arrive." Hearing Barrino sound them one last time made it almost seem worth the two-hour wait.

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