For the past couple of years, the producers of "American Idol" have gone out of their way to promise that this season they're going to focus on the drama onstage, not behind the judge's table.
But, just like last year, when songwriter Kara DioGuardi joined the panel, the buzz on the eve of the show's ninth season is squarely on the judges. In particular, the focus is fully on Simon Cowell, who shocked fans on Monday when he announced that the upcoming season will be his last.
Cowell made the announcement on Monday, 24 hours before season nine was slated to kick off and it immediately shifted the focus to the acerbic Brit whose commentary has been the center of the show since day one.
And while Cowell grabbed headlines, there are plenty of other judge-related subplots that will also vie for attention, including ones centered on Randy Jackson (how will he fare without fellow lifer Paula Abdul, Kara (can she make fans love her after a rocky first season?) and this year's new face, talk-show veteran Ellen DeGeneres.
"When I first started on 'American Idol' they said, 'Don't go on the Internet and read people's comments,' but I did anyway and the comments from people who were really excited after seeing the first set of commercials were all about the judges — 'I can't wait to see Simon and Paula,' " said Matt Giraud, last season's fifth-place finisher who, like others we talked to, discussed the upcoming season before the news about Cowell broke. "People do tune in for the judges too. They make the show. If it was just singing and people voting, it wouldn't have half as many viewers."
The first rounds of auditions will feature a rotating cast of celebrity judges filling in until DeGeneres suits up for the Hollywood rounds, which are scheduled to start airing on February 9. In the first of what promises to be a number of twists this season, the Hollywood rounds were pushed back several months and coincide with the rollout of the auditions shows, which has resulted in much less leaking of early contenders' names.
Entertainment Weekly "Idol" expert Michael Slezak said it's hard to know how the chemistry between the judges will effect the season until the contestants are on stage getting feedback, but he thinks DioGuardi's tale is a cautionary one. "On some level, the producers must have thought Kara would be a good addition and we all saw how that worked out," he said. "It will be interesting to see how Ellen fits in, but the bar is set fairly low in terms of providing good, solid, coherent feedback, because Randy and Kara are not exactly doing that now."
Slezak said there's an opening for DeGeneres to really connect with fans and fill a void that's been there since season one. "We've all gotten used to how easy it is to fast-forward through most of the judges' comments until we get to Simon," he said. "And that's not good for the long-term health of the show because it doesn't make it more entertaining. But if Ellen is good and sharp and if she's honest and tough — she doesn't have to be cruel — there's a potential for the show to be more enjoyable."
And while the pre-season buzz always focuses on the judges, the talk always eventually shifts to the contestants, just as it did last year with the battle between Danny Gokey, Adam Lambert and dark-horse winner Kris Allen. "Ultimately, for the show to be successful, it has to be about the contestants," he said. "What separates 'Idol' from other shows is that the winners actually go on to do something."
The other story line is whether "Idol," which has been the #1 show in prime time for five years running, can continue its winning ways and keep being at the center of the pop-culture conversation. A good sign, Slezak said, is that season eight was probably the buzziest in years thanks to the speculation about Lambert's sexuality, Gokey's compelling backstory and Allen's surprise, come-from-behind win. It hasn't hurt matters that rather than die out in July after the show has run its course, the buzz on "Idol" has continued almost unabated thanks to Lambert's high visibility and his talked-about American Music Awards performance.
Even with the top-36 format jettisoned in favor of the more familiar top 24 finalists and more talk about focusing on the backstories of the contestants, MJ Santilli, Webmaster of the leading "Idol" blog, said she's still thinking about Abdul. "I got a bit fed up with Paula when she was jousting with Fox [over her contract], but I'm probably going to miss her when the show starts," she said. "I will miss her brother-sister relationship with Simon, but I think Ellen could turn out to be a really smart move and she could have really good things to say."
Most importantly, MJ speculated, she will likely not be afraid to mix it up with Cowell and challenge him in a way that Kara and Randy do not. "She could cut him down in a second and won't hesitate to do that, which could be interesting to watch."
With rumors out of Hollywood that this year's crop of female contestants is very strong, MJ said she's expecting a girl to win after an unprecedented two-year run by the boys. "It will be interesting to see if they go for the jokes again this year because there was so much cannon fodder last year with Norman Gentle and Tatiana," she said.
For his part, though they haven't announced plans for it yet this year, Giraud thinks producers should keep the save option in the mix — because, as he said, "it worked out well for me" — but either way, he has some sage advice for contestants. "I would tell them to focus on what's interesting about them — what's unique," he offered. "A lot of people come on the show and try to fit in a box, but they're looking for people who are unique and comfortable in their own skin."
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