American Idol Returns: Part I

After months of hype, American Idol Season Seven kicked off Tuesday night with a two-hour premiere, the first of two nights.

At first, I thought four hours might be a little over-the-top, but I was quickly reminded why they need so much time. At this stage of the competition, it's not just about finding the good singers. It's about the bad and ugly too.

Night one of the show started with the recent American Idol auditions in Philadelphia. According to Ryan Seacrest, it was the show's biggest turnout for auditions ever.

For the most part, it was exactly what we'd come to expect: Randy, Paula and Simon listening to wannabe idols give their best a cappella rendition of pop songs. When someone was good, the three quickly agreed and gave the person their golden ticket to Hollywood. When someone was bad, Randy would usually defer to Simon, obviously not wanting to be the bad guy. About the toughest Randy got was to tell some people, "You aren't for the competition." Paula's a complete pushover. You get the impression she'd greenlight everyone if she didn't have Randy or Simon telling her otherwise.

And is it just me, or did Simon seem nicer than usual? Not so vicious or eager to dash someone's Idol hopes and dreams. Maybe the city of Brotherly Love got to him.

First, there were the good.

We saw plenty of excellent contestants, some with inspiring stories. Like Joey Catalano, who lost 200 pounds and is now getting his moment in the limelight. Or single-mother Angela whose daughter is sick with a rare illness. Both had great voices to go along with their emotional stories, and both earned a trip to California.

Some of the less talented contestants actually made for some nice moments in the show too. When one teenage girl broke down in tears after being rejected, Simon, Paula and Randy gave her a group hug and then left the audition room with her to face her family. It was... (sniff, sniff)... a touching scene.

Part of the show was blatantly transparent, though. After seeing a video of contestant Kristy Lee Cook kickboxing and riding horses in Oregon, it was pretty clear she was going to Hollywood. Why else would A.I. take a trip to her hometown?

And then there were the bad.

Contestants with names like Brandi and Udgeet were awful, but sincerely thought they had a chance. Simon openly chastised Udgeet, calling him crazy for even thinking he had a shot. And one contestant, James Lewis, was so terrible that Simon, Randy and Paula couldn't stop laughing.

It was at this point that I realized that half the reason to watch the season premiere is to see the bad contestants. Who cares about who's good? I'll find out later. This is the time to sit back and watch people make fools of themselves.

But it was also at this point that I recognized a new phenomenon in the American Idol auditions. Call it "The William Hung Effect." You remember him, don't you? He's the guy who sang "She Bang" so badly that he earned his own ear-splitting album and a cross-country tour.

It's apparent that plenty of people try out for A.I. not hoping to be the next Idol, but hoping to be the next Hung.

Like Benjamin, an overweight guy who showed up in an I Dream of Jeannie outfit. When Paula told him his chest was too hairy, he left, got it waxed, and came back. (He was rejected by Simon after two bars of "Don't Cha" by the Pussycat Dolls.)

Or Alexis Cohen, a wannabe glam rocker who compared herself to Grace Slick. Then, after Simon very politely and gently gave her the boot, she railed during her post-audition interview about what an a-hole he was.

Or Milo Turk, who sang his own song called "No Sex Allowed."

Or some freak named Paul who sang a stalking-themed love song to Paula Abdul and practically had to be escorted out by security.

Or Christina Tolisano, dressed as Princess Leia from Star Wars, who looked awful and sang even worse, and then acted stunned beyond belief that she was not chosen.

These days, becoming a celebrity isn't about being good. Being bad, I mean really, really bad will earn you a ticket to stardom too.

The second part of the season premiere of American Idol continues tonight at 8pm on FOX. This time they'll bring us auditions from Dallas. I wonder what kind of freaks they'll dredge up there.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.