The web series American Contestant, starring comedian Bob Odenkirk, hits a beautiful note of absurdity with its lampoon of American Idol. One of the appeals of Idol is, of course, personal backgrounds. Those stories we learn about each singer; their ups and downs in life before making it on a stage alongside Seacrest.
Sure it helps if they could sing, but if they do it blind, or right after they share a story about their 80-year old arthritic great Aunt in Florida (who still skateboards!), or even if they just dress strange and refuse to use a comb, we won’t even need that whole “singing” part. You’ve got our vote. (Or not. It’s kinda fixed.)
On Contestant a room of judges led by Odenkirk, doing his best faux-British Simon Cowell impersonation, welcome in a new contestant every episode. There is also a hip by half measure black judge (Brandon Johnson), and Natasha Leggero channels Paula Abdul in the middle of a pill fit.
The contest is not about picking the best singer, or chef, or fashion model. A contestant who sings a Tina Turner song in Episode 1 is quickly shut down. Provoked further she tells the judges – no joke – “I hope your kidney’s fail.” Well, kind of a joke. The contestants on Contestant only have to convince the judges of one thing: that they really, truly “want to go to the next level.”
What is the next level? That part is intentionally unclear. It could be an alien-breeding colony for all we know, but by all indications “the next level” is a trip to Hollywood. This is best addressed in Episode 6 when we learn that contestant Charlie T., who is unemployed and lives in Hollywood, has flown all the way out to where the show tapes, in Idaho, to win a trip back to Hollywood. “I spent all my money to fly out and audition for this,” he tells the interviewer in the green room. Ultimately his story isn’t sad enough to earn him a trip back home.
The episodes are short, around 2 minutes in length, and have the air of improvisation, a welcome practice given the talent of the cast. Comedy nerds of course are already very familiar with Odenkirk’s genius work as one half of the critically acclaimed HBO sketch series Mr. Show with Bob and David. In fact, the premise of American Contestant reminds me of a favorite Mr. Show sketch “The Audition.”
Contestant though has a more specific target in mind. It takes a funny, and well-executed jab at the exploitive tendencies of reality competition shows, and the fuzzy ambitions that they promote. Do you want to go to the next level? Of course! Whatever it is, it has to be better than Idaho.