Oh Idol, Don't Be Cruel

In the human equivalent of product placement, cast members from Glee were stationed prominently behind the American Idol judges last night while last season’s runner-up but true winner Adam Lambert came back to mentor our lost little lambs.

And what could be more relevant, more contemporary, more hot, more bomb-like, and less pitchy than to reach even farther back than The Beatles (right, Lennon-McCartney) and the Rolling Stones to that king of both rock and roll and jelly rolls, Elvis Presley? Especially when there’s an Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil show to promote in Las Vegas.

What became obvious was that Idol needed Glee and Adam more than they needed Idol. Glee is skinny Memphis Elvis, Idol is fat, Vegas buffet Elvis. It’s a story as old as Hollywood, whether in All About Eve or A Star Is Born: there’s always some younger, fresher, and hungrier phenomenon coming up and right now on television and that phenom is Glee. Need evidence that Idol felt tired last night? Ryan broke out a Brian Dunkleman joke and slapped hands with the audience while saying, “Wassup!” Has that term been gone so long that it now has attained some retro cachet?

Like Idol, Glee features a group of kids singing their guts out week after week but it also benefits from a subversive heart that keeps it from being as sickeningly sweet as one of the slushies that gets thrown into the Glee kids’ faces. On Glee, you get the snap and sass of a gay character like Kurt instead of the towel-snapping exchanges between Simon and Ryan. Its musical numbers sometimes come across as over-produced and eight years down the road Glee may seem as tired as Idol does today But right now if you’re in the mood for polished, mainstream musical entertainment on television, Glee is the way to go. From Fox’s perspective, it’s only natural to pair the shows. Except that Idol’s strivers can’t match up with Glee’s Broadway- and professionally-trained performers and when seen together don’t benefit from the comparison.

Idol, with its real-life stories, should be more compelling. Until Idol, Crystal Bowersox was a struggling single mom and musician and Lee DeWyze worked in a paint store. Now they’re on the verge of national breakthroughs. Tim Urban was a cute guy from Texas with floppy hair and a nice smile and now he’s a cute guy from Texas with floppy hair and a nice smile. The format is so familiar and the process—whether the teen-driven voting or the relentless promotion—so creatively deadening, that it’s hard for anyone of substance to emerge. Which brings us to Adam Lambert.

Despite finishing second, he is clearly a rare Idol success story. He used the show as a rocket to fame, as Simon once described the show’s potential, and has largely transcended it by remaining true to himself and his talent. When Matt Giraud or Scott MacIntyre or Ruben Studdard come back to perform, they’re there to hold onto the piece of the fame that Idol gave them. Watching Adam, however, he reminded me of an outcast kid who attained stardom and then comes back to his high school for a celebratory assembly. The teachers are all still there, the auditorium is the same, and he knows that he has moved beyond all that.

Oh yeah, there was a singing competition last night. And it was decidedly underwhelming and predictable. My sense is that Aaron Kelly and Andrew Garcia are gone and that nobody else did anything to either hurt or advance their chances. Stray observations include:

—Elvis Presley songs are Elvis Presley songs because he sang them, not because of their inherent quality.

—Katie Stevens needs to work on her white girl head shimmy.

—Why are the judges so confused that Siobhan Magnus employs different vocal styles?

—Why did a Coke ad start flashing on the screens behind Siobhan when Ryan was talking to her before her performance? Does she get paid extra? Suspicious minds demand to know.

Now that you’ve seen them together, what’s your preference? Glee or Idol?

Follow TV.com writer Matt Jaffe on Twitter: @MattAtTVDotCom

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