Why You Aren't Watching BET's 'Sunday Best'

As a general rule, American Idol seasons end up informally labeled with the names of their winners. Season one is the "Kelly Clarkson season," season four the "Carrie Underwood season," and season six the "Jordin Sparks season." But for this, the current ninth season of Idol, I propose a break from tradition and submit that it be forever known as the "Murphy's Law season," because it seems at this point that any component of the Idol machine that can break down will do so, inevitably and catastrophically.

There are the contestants, a uniformly underwhelming bunch in which mediocrity has been the rule rather than the exception (a situation that was only compounded by the voters' will to eliminate some of the most promising contestants early on). Now we're down to three, and Crystal Bowersox, long the season's frontrunner, comes off bored and put upon, as if she accomplished what she set out to do weeks ago and is now simply going through the motions. The judges' table is equally broken. When the season started I was shocked by how little I missed Paula Abdul, but without her verging-on-incoherent rambling, there's little to look forward to. The Ellen DeGeneres experiment is, it's safe to say, a failure, and Simon Cowell seems stricken with a particularly acute and aggressive strain of senioritis as he prepares to sprint toward his new show, The X Factor. But the sad part is not Idol's decline; it's that most of the country will continue to watch out of slavish devotion when it should be reallocating its sing-off obsession to BET's Sunday Best.

Sunday Best is one of Idol's many bastard children, genre-specific or higher-concept shows such as USA's Nashville Star and ABC's The One, in this case taking on the task of finding America's best undiscovered gospel singer—or, rather, finding black America's best undiscovered gospel singer. It should go without saying that Americans of different races, by and large, worship separately, and they have very different ideas of what constitutes praise. The African-American tradition of praise through song is integral to worship; it's passionate, it's stirring, and it's all-consuming. The visceral entertainment value of black gospel makes Sunday Best, now in its third season, a destination for the type of leave-it-on-the-stage, diaphragmatic wailing that a singing competition is supposed to deliver. Not to mention that the black gospel tradition gave birth to the type of rafter-shaking singing we now expect to see from our best pop singers. In theory, the show should be a viable alternative for underwhelmed Idol fans, and yet I don't expect it to win a huge viewership.

It's not for lack of trying. Sunday Best follows the Idol formula with the unwavering precision of a pastry chef. It starts with a few rounds of open casting calls in different cities (this season included a stop in Nigeria), with a batch of hopefuls parading through the auditions: some fun, some sad, some sunny, some faddy. The most auspicious of them are then whisked to New Orleans to compete for the prizes: the title of Sunday Best, a recording contract, and even a brand-new Ford Taurus—which, given Ford's cozy sponsorship of Idol, is tantamount to infidelity. There's an appealing host in the form of Kirk Franklin, who lacks Ryan Seacrest's android sheen but more than holds his own. A trio of judges evaluates the contestants: Tina Campbell of Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, and Donnie McClurkin. They don't pull punches, though usually there aren't many to pull when the talent pool is this strong. Unlike Idol, Best doesn't correct for image. This year's oldest contestant is 79-year-old Goldwire McClendon. He's phenomenal—and his name is Goldwire. If that alone doesn't make you regret the time you wasted with Aaron Kelly, well ... we're different people.

But I recognize that in spite of all it has going for it, namely the interesting contestants and legitimately competent singing, Sunday Best isn't likely to extend its reach. There is the matter of its being on BET, which in theory shouldn't dissuade nonblacks from watching but probably will anyway. When I watch an episode of Gossip Girl or America's Next Top Model on the CW, by the 27th feminine-hygiene commercial I can't help but feel slightly out of place at the party. If my personal identity as a viewer doesn't mesh with the brand, I don't feel unwelcome per se, but sort of uncomfortable, as if I'd walked in on my parents making out. I'd imagine that a white person, even one without a trace of racial animus, might not be able to watch BET for extended periods without getting a little antsy.

Beyond that, the show is too religious, frankly. As much as we revel in our collective identity as a Christian nation, there hasn't been much mainstream religiously themed television to speak of lately, the last attempt being NBC's short-lived Kings. I'd imagine that even for some regular churchgoers, those who believe deeply in a personal God and his direct influence in their lives, there is a time to worship and a time to veg, and never the twain shall meet. But even if the general religious nature of the show weren't the sticking point, it's a specific kind of religious tradition that just isn't going to make everyone comfortable. The most fascinating thing about the fallout that followed the revelation of Jeremiah Wright's most incendiary sermons was the chasm between the white people who found Wright's words shocking and the black people who thought, "This looks like my pastor when he's just getting warmed up." For many, Sunday Best won't be judged objectively by its performances, because they're so deeply rooted in a religious tradition that, for a large swath of the country, is unfamiliar and hard to relate to. Still, next time you're taking the Lord's name in vain over the fact that some Idol contestant is caterwauling through a Jewel song, Sunday Best is something to consider.