Living in the Northeast, I hate winter. I really do. But for nearly a decade, one of the things that made winter a little more tolerable was the arrival of American Idol in January. I am an unabashed fan of this wacky and wonderful series. Or at least I used to be.
Somehow, the producers managed to catch lightning in a bottle with the show's original judging panel. Even though Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson all had shortcomings, they somehow melded into an intriguing trio whose chemistry was undeniable. And the talent from Season 1? Kelly Clarkson truly was idol caliber, though only a few other winners since then have been.
Still, over the years, it all made for an entertaining mix and incredibly high ratings. Along the way, The Powers That Be made some minor tweaks, but in Season 8, they decided to really rattle the cage by adding a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi. Whether it was done because they planned on releasing Paula Abdul at the end of that year when her contract expired, or knew that Abdul was planning to leave, or wanted to balance the male-to-female ratio of judges, we'll probably never know. But it unsettled a lot of long-term fans.
During the season, there was a tense vibe between the two women, with Abdul being far more vocal (and surprisingly coherent) and DioGuardi a bit too strident, as she tried to prove herself worthy. The show frequently and annoyingly ran over its time slot, and the contestants, other than electric Adam Lambert -- who in the end lost to dull but charming Kris Allen -- were, well, boring.
Last season, with the absence of Abdul, the addition of Ellen DeGeneres and the prospect of Simon Cowell's imminent departure, things continued to degenerate. Randy Jackson seemed to become even more irrelevant (if that was even possible) as the two women jockeyed for favor. DeGeneres tried to be warm, cuddly and funny, while DioGuardi, who constantly clashed with Cowell her first season, now sat next to him and literally clung to him, often entwining her arm with his.
Surprisingly, DioGuardi was probably the best judge in Season 9, at times contributing the only meaningful evaluations. Though Cowell formerly owned that job, he now seemed burnt out and bored, barely getting up the energy to give even a caustic critique. Other than championing Lee DeWyze, who otherwise probably would not even have made the final five (much less have beaten Crystal Bowersox), Cowell just petered out and melted away by May.
Shortly after Season 9 ended, DeGeneres announced she wouldn't return, and DioGuardi was fired. Other shakeups were to come. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, a driving force behind the original show who had left after Season 7 to concentrate on his series So You Think You Can Dance, returned and promised format changes. The judging panel shrunk back to three, with Aerosmith "legend" Steven Tyler and "triple threat" singer-dancer-actress Jennifer Lopez joining Jackson. Jackson, not impressive on even his best judging days, not only survived the cast changes, but was elevated to "chief judge," the job formerly held by Cowell. Many other format changes will be rolled out as the season progresses. Last night (Jan. 19), Season 10 premiered.
If I'm being honest, as Cowell might say, I wasn't greeting Season 10 with much enthusiasm. Of all the names bandied about as possible judge replacements, Tyler and Lopez were probably at the bottom of my list.
Tyler can be a great performer (as he recently proved during the Kennedy Center Honors), but as a judge, he's way too manic. Yes, he's a rock star, I get it, but a judge who sings along (out loud) with the auditioners, curses a blue streak on camera, and openly ogles the female talent -- all of whom are younger than his two adult daughters -- uh-uh.
His vote was also easily swayed by his fellow judges. He'd start out being negative, then listen to Lopez's histrionics about how hard it is to say "no," and would vote "yes." To his credit, he was the most animated and least boring of the judges. He also had the best line of the evening, the very Simon Cowell-ish crack, "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?," after 19-year-old Michael Perotto of Massachusetts massacred Proud Mary.
I admit, I fell asleep numerous times during the show. Wake up, rewind the DVR, start watching again. Fall asleep, wake up, rewind the DVR and start watching again. Over and over -- and hey, why does it always seem to be when J.Lo is giving her critique? J.Lo critiquing usually consisted of a minute or two of whining about how hard, really hard, no, really, really hard it is to say "no" (she asks Randy, "How did you do this for 10 years?") or "Yes, I like you. You're cute. I say yes." OK, she's pretty and she's sweet, but Abdul was, too. What's missing here is the loopy zaniness that Abdul brought to the mix, as well as, yes, musical knowledge.
We didn't hear J.Lo say anything of any depth or value. Eventually, she learned to say "no," without whining, but you had to be very, very, very bad for that to happen, way past borderline. Right now, she brings nothing to the table.
Randy Jackson is, well, Randy Jackson. He didn't say much, and what he did say wasn't worth remembering. Worse, the same can be said about this first group of contestants trying out in New Jersey. Some were OK, some better than mediocre. But nobody shined, nobody got you excited. Nobody made you want to tune in to see them again (shades of Paula Abdul's Live to Dance).
But that is exactly what American Idol needed to do right off the bat this season: give disenchanted viewers, who tuned in last night out of mere curiosity, a compelling reason to come back again, week after week. In that, it largely failed.
The first audition sums up the night. Rachel Zevita, 22, who made it to Hollywood in Season 6, gushed to Lopez "Why haven't you been here before?" after J.Lo told her she remembered her from four years earlier, and that she and husband Marc Anthony couldn't understand why she'd been cut.
When Randy said, "What about me?" Zevita told him, "You're always my dog. You had my back, you had my back when nobody else did, and I'll never forget that." (A check of YouTube shows that Jackson gave her a very bored, noncommittal "yes" the first time around, when she told the judges she was an opera singer.)
Zevita then sang Hallelujah, and not particularly well. (She sang Eternal Life, another Jeff Buckley song, in her first audition.) The final note was so high-pitched, it actually made Tyler wince and say "oooo."
Lopez said it wasn't the best audition, but "I know you can sing and sing a lot of different things, too" from what she remembered from a few years ago (Zevita sang three different songs for the judges during her first audition).
Lopez then wondered if Zevita's performance suffered because she was nervous. Zevita answered, "I sang for the [finger quotes] famous people before, but they weren't people I looked up to since the age of 4." Jackson cleared his throat and said, "Really?" Zevita, realizing her major gaffe, dissing the "famous person" who minutes earlier she said she'd never forget for having her back, meekly said "I'm sorry, Randy," with her head in her hands.
Zevita then stared at Tyler intently, looking as if she was trying to understood what language he was speaking, as he told her, in something similar to English, "You know, when you came out here you were on fire, you know? You gotta sing something that delivers that same feeling in voice, and in notes and in toneage [sic], like you just spoke. We ought to let her in the door, water that flower, because it's gonna grow. I think you got the 'what it is' is. I think you got it. I just think you need to, you need to redirect it."
Lopez, minutes earlier Zevita's biggest fan, hesitated when asked for her decision. She pursed her lips and reluctantly said, "I'm going to put you through, based on what I remember. But I need to see that, I really need to see that, or you're not going to make it past Hollywood week, like last time." Tyler gave her a yes, as did Jackson, who said, "I think you're worth one more shot."
People, Zevita doesn't have a snowball's chance even in a New York blizzard. This is what Simon Cowell used to mean when he berated his fellow judges for giving these contestants false hope. This girl is going nowhere. Not this year, or ever.
And at this point, the same can probably be said for Season 10 of American Idol.