American Idol: Idol Gives Back

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8 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday, April 24-25
Fox

"Tonight, your calls will not only save contestants -- they will also save lives!" That was "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest on Tuesday, marking perhaps the first time that the plight of amateur singers was compared to that of AIDS-stricken children in Africa.

That's what you get when "Idol" works to demonstrate its soft and mushy side, as it did this week with the shamelessly hokey two-night "Idol Gives Back" charitable diversion that a cynic might observe as having served a dual purpose: raise money and push the "Idol" finale a week deeper into the May sweep (not necessarily in that order). Yes, it's win-win, primetime style. During both nights, we were treated to the spectacle of the "Idol" host and judges -- including Simon Cowell -- centering grim photo ops with desperately sick and needy children in Africa and America while stars came out to beat the drum for funds.

Fox parent News Corp. kicked in 10 cents for each phone call up to 50 million (or $5 million), allowing the recipients of the largesse to declare, "If we had a dime for every phone call ... ." It played very much like a telethon on steroids, complete with devastating footage of the diseased and homeless set to heart-rending music.

Ellen DeGeneres co-hosted from Orange County, Calif. Ben Stiller did a typically self-deprecating turn. And Jack Black was even more hyperkinetic than usual. (Paula: "The School of Rock called. They want their diploma back.") But the coup de grace was Wednesday's wildly indulgent music video featuring stars gyrating and lip-synching to the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" (an intriguing title considering the dire fund-raising subject). Everyone from Teri Hatcher to Dr. Phil to Hugh Grant to Shaq to Helen Mirren joined in. Oh, and none of the six remaining "Idol" finalists was voted off. Big shockeroo, that.

Anytime News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch can be cast as a magnanimous savior, you know we've ventured into an alternate universe.

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