Despite less-than-stellar initial ratings, "American Idol" is coming out of the blocks for its 10th season with something even more important than audience share, particularly for a reality show hitting late middle age, and that's buzz.
With a format that is well-beyond familiar by now, the injection of fresh blood via new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez has amped up the watercooler talk for a show that some had predicted was on the decline. Despite fears that the show would stumble without the harsh guiding hand of departed go-to judge Simon Cowell, MTV News' resident "American Idol" expert, Jim Cantiello, said instead of mourning the loss of King Cowell, he's praising the rise of Tyler.
"If anything, Steven Tyler's wacky addition proved that it's not a 'mean judge' that keeps me jazzed for 'Idol.' It's an unhinged one," said Cantiello about the entertaining, unpredictable shenanigans pulled out by Tyler in the first two nights of audition episodes this week. "Truth be told, I never realized how much I missed Paula [Abdul] last year. Tyler's colorful language, zany metaphors and deafening jangly man-jewelry was just the entertaining wild card the two-night premiere needed to give it a must-see facelift."
Cantiello was glad that the new trio, which also includes sole returning judge Randy Jackson, didn't fall into the same old "mean Simon" and "too-nice Paula" tropes. Lopez easily mixed Abdul's sweetness with an undercurrent of Cowell's honesty, while Tyler deftly pinwheeled between wacky Paula-isms amid stinging putdowns. And already he's delivered one of the season's top lines in his zinger to belcher Michael Perotto courtesy of "Tommy Boy": "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?"
MJ Santilli, founder of one of the leading "Idol" blogs, MJsBigBlog.com, agreed with Cantiello, calling Tyler the "breakout" star on the show so far. "The new panel seems to be having a blast," she said. "Fun has been sorely missing from the judges' table the past couple of years. Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez's enthusiasm has energized Randy Jackson. The fresh, new panel has me not missing Simon Cowell at all. Yet."
The real test, though, will be when the show goes live on March 1, which will provide proof of whether the apparent camaraderie among the three is real or the product of clever editing.
But what about, you know, the singers, who are ostensibly the focus of the show? Santilli said the New Jersey singers on Wednesday night were mostly weak, but maybe that was because they held back the best stuff in order to let the new panelists shine and get some traction. "The New Orleans hopefuls had more standouts," she said of Thursday night's bunch. "At least, there are a couple that I remember, like the two teen tenors, Brett Loewenstern and Jacee Badeaux."
With the age limit dropped to 15 this year, Santilli suspects the producers are gunning for a teen winner in season 10, but with high schoolers having struggled in the live shows last year, it's unclear if the young'uns can handle the pressure of performing in front of an audience.
With less jokey singers and a higher talent ratio on Thursday night, Cantiello also thought New Orleans offered up some promising contestants we might see again in Hollywood. "I can't say I'm looking forward to another three weeks of audition episodes, though," he added. "Let's get to the live shows already!"
Do you agree with our experts about the first two nights of "Idol" auditions? Tell us in the comments!
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