There are two separate, not necessarily equal, groups of on-air talent for "American Idol" - there are the contestants, and then there are the judges and host Ryan Seacrest.
It's been hard to gauge their relative value to the franchise in years past. At times, the caustic remarks of Simon Cowell, or the loopiness of Paula Abdul, seemed to be the main entertainment. At others, it was clearly the kids on stage.
Last year, both halves of the show went in the tank at the same time. Paula was gone, Simon had one foot out the door - and acted like it - Kara Dio Guardi was still overly defensive, Ellen DeGeneres was terrified and Randy Jackson was Randy Jackson, and therefore useless. And the finalists made up one of the more underwhelming groups of contestants the show has ever had.
Because of the lackluster on-air product, and because "Idol" was nearly a decade old, cracks finally started to appear in the show's armor. Ratings slipped (though not enough to take it out of the number one ranking among the 18-49 year-old viewers advertisers care about), audience enthusiasm seemed to wane (Seacrest rarely boasted about vote totals the way he had in previous years), and even FOX execs who usually had nothing but high praise for the franchise admitted that it needed a change.
And change - on both the judging and performing side of things - has indeed come in ways big and small as the 10th season is about to begin Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
Simon's gone. Kara's gone. Ellen's gone. Randy, inexplicably, survives, and is joined by Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. No fourth judge anymore (which will hopefully restore some performance time that was taken away when Kara showed up), but record executive Jimmy Iovine will be on hand as a weekly mentor.
The age limit for auditioners was lowered from 16 to 15 in the hopes that might refresh a talent pool that's been depleted over nine seasons of auditions, Hollywood rounds, semi-finals, etc. The semi-final round, which producer Nigel Lythgoe has always hated, has been pared back to a single week, and an extra phase of the "Hollywood round" has been added where contestants go to Las Vegas to sing a Beatles song for the judges.
That is a lot of tweaking, and it remains to be seen which parts, if any, will lead to actual improvement - and which part of the show needs help more.
Tyler and Lopez are certainly much more famous than any of the original judges were when the series started, but star power doesn't automatically equate to being both articulate and entertaining in this role. If the newbies are clearly terrible, no one's going to be tuning in past week two or three just to see the guy who sang "Dream On" or the woman who got locked in the trunk with George Clooney in "Out of Sight."
FOX sent out a highlight reel of the new judging panel at auditions, and not surprisingly, given that the producers want to place more emphasis on the talent level, most of the clips were of them congratulating the good people. Tyler seems to have an enthusiasm that the judging panel hasn't had in a while, but again, it's a highlight reel, and there are many times he has trouble stringing sentences together, which could kill him in the live shows. (That was one of Ellen's many problems.) Randy is still, unfortunately, Randy, and Lopez seems the best hope at the table to actually have interesting things to say. (She'll also no doubt draw some attention simply for The Many Faces of J-Lo, as each audition city seemed to bring with it an entirely different look for the sometime style icon.)
And though Randy boasted about the season's talent level at a press conference last week ("We’ve got some heat this season, and I think the better talent that we’ve had in many seasons"), he also acknowledged that he says that almost every year. Will adding a bunch of 15-year-olds (and 16-year-olds who weren't eligible last year under the old rules) make things significantly better? For the most part, the show's youngest contestants have often seemed the most afraid and least polished once they get to the big stage. And once you get into the higher age ranges, it's hard to imagine there's someone on a Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood level who's still both undiscovered and hasn't bothered to audition in any of the previous 9 seasons.
If you believe that the judges really have final say about who makes it to Hollywood, and then who makes it to the public vote, then maybe a better, or at least different, crop of singers will be in the semi-finals. If, on the other hand, you assume that a lot of sway comes from the producers (who have more or less been the same for the life of the series), then they'll favor the same archetypes, put through too much cannon fodder who will then stick around too long for reasons having nothing to do with their voices, etc.
"Idol" needs at least one group - the singers or the judges - to be markedly better than a year ago. I'm skeptical about both.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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