Six months after the announcement of his impending departure and one deeply disappointing season later, we still don't know who Simon Cowell's replacement on American Idol will be - and I still think Gareth Malone is the best choice.
When I first recommended Malone three months ago, I did so at a time when most people in the American television industry and virtually the entire American television audience had no idea who he was. That may still be the case, but Malone's status will change July 7 with the premiere on BBC America of The Choir - a marvelous reality competition-observational documentary series that might strike some as a real-life Glee. Indeed, gleeks could do much worse than to embrace this series as a satisfying diversion during a long hot summer without fresh episodes of Fox's musical sensation.
In many ways Gareth Malone is a real-life Will Schuster -- with better hair. He's a compassionate music instructor who specializes in training kids and teenagers to sing in classical music groups at schools or in communities that generally do not offer music programs for young people. Malone is well-informed, tough-talking and telegenic - and also quite good at bringing out the best in under-motivated kids, many of them suffering from low self-esteem.
It is impossible not to be pulled into the personal drama of it all as Malone puts together large rag-tag groups of kids, brings out and assesses their inner performers, then narrows them down into a smaller ensembles that later compete in local, regional and international competitions. Dreams are fulfilled, hearts are broken and strong emotional connections are made as each arc of the show plays out.
After watching several episodes of The Choir and coming to understand the guy, Malone strikes me as totally qualified for the Idol gig. I think many people who watch the show will feel the same way. He knows music. He's used to working with kids (most of them younger than the average Idol contestant) and he is especially good with those who have lots of talent but no real experience at performing. He has a strong presence on camera. He can be quite charming at times but can also be devastatingly direct, sometimes reducing his pupils to tears with his criticism. Since he always begins each arc of the show with more novice singers than will fit in a final choral group, he is no stranger to the difficulties of painful weekly eliminations. He can also be emotional, sometimes losing his cool, sometimes crying when he is moved by a particular performance or accomplishment.
All of those qualities make Malone an engaging television personality. Clearly, they are the very qualities that Cowell's replacement will have to bring to Idol to help reverse the fading fortunes of that floundering juggernaut.
At the very least, I hope The Choir will be a summer hit for BBC America. It certainly deserves to be. In the ultimate best case scenario, its debut on American television will convince the powers that be that I have been right about Malone all along. They'll have to move fast: Auditions for the tenth season of American Idol begin July 17 in Nashville. Shouldn't Cowell's replacement be there?
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