Woof. Oh boy. Here we go.
Welcome to American Idol‘s post-overhaul end-times. This is what happens when the only interesting people on America’s highest-rated TV show decide that they’ve had enough, or that they’d rather get money making different reality-TV shows. And so here we have their superstar replacements: Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, two stratospheric but long-faded stars who need the world’s attention just as badly as the kids they’re judging. You can absolutely see it in their faces every time they’re on camera. At the outset of tonight’s show, both judges, plus returning nonentity Randy Jackson, get full-on operatic introductions in front of screaming, crying throngs who seem imported directly from that one Michael Jackson show in Bucharest that they showed on HBO all those times. And as Ryan Seacrest explains who these judges are, we get montages of them preening and mugging at photo shoots — Tyler posing with Seacrest’s tie in his mouth and that type of bullshit. If this opening was supposed to convince any skeptical parties of the strength of a post-Cowell Idol, it crashed spectacularly.
But this is still American Idol, the most absurdly successful TV show of the past decade, and it fell into an old, familiar rhythm pretty quickly, which is what it needed to do. In the past week, producer types have been talking a big game about how they want to dial down the show’s freakshow element and focus on the people with actual talent, and maybe it trended just slightly in that direction tonight. But mostly, it was the exact same auditions show we’ve seen a million times, just with a few new people plunked down in their predecessors’ still-warm chairs. The only real problem was the complete lack of appalled Simon Cowell reaction shots, always the show’s great comic weapon. Without that, the funny contestants just aren’t as funny, and J.Lo’s giggle-cringe just doesn’t have the same force.
It’s hard to get much of a bead on these new judges before the live shows start, but this first episode did make it pretty clear that Steven Tyler is going to be the absolute bane of my existence for the next five months. Tyler is totally incomprehensible much of the time, and he makes up for it by screaming, yipping, hooting, primping, and stretching his already-rubbery face out into Ernest P. Worrell flesh-cartoons. This is someone who will use the word “pizazz” in all seriousness and expect that we’ll know what he’s talking about, so this is going to take some getting used to.
Tyler’s flirting with contestants a third his age, though? That’s something that just needs to stop. At least when Tommy Lee was pulling his creepshow act on Rock Star: Supernova, he wasn’t kicking game to actual 16-year-olds. The sexy-grandpa routine, especially coupled with that nightmarish little soul patch, is just going to make people sad.
As for Lopez, she seems to be mentally present, so that’s something. Actually, it’s enough to push her beyond the lowest points of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Ellen DeGeneres, and Steven Tyler just by itself, so consider that a good sign. On the downside, I’m not convinced she has much to offer beyond the standard showbiz platitudes you already knew she’d lay on thick. Her first piece of actual advice was directed at Devyn Rush, a singing Broadway waitress whose blues-mama vocal affectations were a bad fit for her likable normal-kid look. Lopez’s solution: Rush should act like more of an asshole, basically.
It’s hard to say much about the contestants themselves, since 10 seconds of a capella singing don’t do much to indicate whether these people are any good. But at this point, the show sells personalities and back stories, and I liked some of those. I liked Melisa Ademi, the refugee from Kosovo whose parents carry themselves with that glumly matter-of-fact war-struck dignity that I’ve seen in a few of my past landlords. I liked Travis Orlando, the bubbly Bronx kid who hugs his twin brother a lot and has some ill-defined shelter-survival past. I liked the Staten Island girl whose name I forgot, the one whose dad just lived through throat cancer treatment. I reserve every right to hate these people in a couple of months if and when they make it far enough to reveal that they can’t actually sing on live TV, but three OK kids is all I need for now.
Oh, and the hysteric fake-Miley Victoria Huggins, the one who clearly adjusted her accent so she’d sound as Cyrus-y as possible? She needs to go. Like, right now. A 16-year-old kid shouldn’t be as visibly attention-starved as motherfucking Jennifer Lopez.