There is nothing more valuable to the health of an eight-year-old TV series than a surprise. And when it comes to American Idol, surprises are few and far between. We can depend on one winner per year, someone who will either proceed to a robust, award-laden career in music (like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood), or not (like what's-her-name and that other guy). And we can also depend, every couple of seasons, on a losing contestant dishing out sweet revenge on the charts (Chris Daughtry), at the Oscars (Jennifer Hudson), or on Broadway (Constantine Maroulis, who just became the show's first-ever Tony nominee).
But once in a very long while, someone arrives who doesn't just dominate American Idol, but challenges and even changes it. Idol has always positioned itself as a portal to what ''America'' (meaning, its particular viewers) desires in a newly anointed star. It's no accident that each episode's opening credits showcase faceless CGI humanoids striding toward their destinies. Idol stars are supposed to be blank slates, ''relatable'' folk with extraordinary talent whom we elect in an orderly fashion and elevate to success.
Meet Adam Lambert. Adam has messed all that up. Adam is nobody's idea of a blank slate. Adam is a surprise.
There was a time not too many seasons ago when, with his mop of glam-rock cobalt-blue-on-dyed-black hair, his earring, his sneering, and his unambiguously ambiguous sexuality, Adam would have been brushed off early on, chum thrown at the sharkish judges for a laugh during the audition rounds. And there was also a time, more recently, when Adam would have made it to Hollywood but been dismissed as ''too Broadway'' or ''too musical theater'' phrases that are Idol's heterocentric way of weeding out male singers with a little too much throb in their voices and an attentive flair for the drama in lyrics.
NEXT PAGE: ''I know who I am. I'm an honest guy, and I'm just going to keep singing.''