It was the best of times, it was the worst of British accents on the two-night season 12 debut of "American Idol" last week. While Nicki Minaj drew (mostly) positive notices for her astute, energetic comments to contestants and snappy repartee with sleepy-looking fellow newbie Mariah Carey, country singer Keith Urban emerged as a potential stand-out star on the revamped panel.
Not that it helped drive tune-in, as first-night ratings dive-bombed by nearly 20 percent from last year's debut, for the lowest season opening audience figures in show history. Thursday's show leveled things out a bit, down just two percent from last year's second episode, drawing 18 million viewers.
MTV News asked a panel of experts to weigh in on how Nicki and Mariah did on their network series debut and what the rest of the season might look like.
"I thought it was really entertaining for the most part," said longtime "Idol" blogger MJ Santilli. "Nicki Minaj is the breakout star of the season. I'm just a little worried that the bickering between her and Mariah might get a little old." Santilli said Minaj grabbed the spotlight because she clearly understands that her job is to judge and entertain. In addition to being quirky and witty, MJ praised Minaj's ability to be tough, but let down contestants without hurting their feelings.
As for Carey, Santilli dubbed her "dull," suggesting that the global superstar views herself as the queen bee of the panel ruling over the judge's desk, which might be part of the conflict with Minaj. "She's been at this a long time [and] she has a good music sensibility," she said.
To be sure, the dueling divas didn't disappoint in that arena. They had their claws out almost from the very first moment we saw them, and the parade of eye rolls, snarky asides, bitch bombs and not-so-subtle career slights were half the show during the first two episodes.
Santilli said the fighting seemed more mean-spirited than playful for the most part, making it clear that the singers are unlikely to ever completely bury the hatchet. "It would be kind of ugly to see them explode on live TV," she said, noting that a nuclear blowup like that might actually be some people's thing. "The thing about 'Idol' is that it's always been about the contestants. I can understand their point of putting a lot of focus on the judges, but I hope that eventually the contestants will become the focus."
Whatever you thought of the two women's performances, TVLine senior editorMichael Slezak said at least they weren't boring. He praised Nicki's outsized personality and edge, as well as Carey's diva attitude and bearing. "What gets lost in the discussion of how the two went at each other is that they were both were pretty thoughtful and they seem to take their job pretty seriously," he said. "That's the kind of thing we've been demanding from 'Idol' judges for a couple of seasons and haven't quite gotten.
Slezak also enjoyed seeing the panel, which also includes lone original judge Randy Jackson, disagreeing with each other in a variety of combinations. "It's not a very fun show when everybody agrees on every single contestant and there's no debate and there's no digging into whether the person's ready or not," he said. "We saw much more of that [this week] than we probably did in the last two seasons of 'Idol' combined in the audition episodes."
Both agreed that Minaj won the breakout star award, even if some viewers might have been turned off by some of her antics. The real work comes after the audition episodes, when the quartet have to work together to build a viable group of finalists. Slezak thought they were off to a good start, though.
"They also have to be entertaining, they have to be articulate and they have to be honest," he said, noting that all celebrity judges must balance being true to themselves with being too nice as to not anger their fan base. "We saw some honesty from Mariah, from Nicki and from Keith that I find quite promising ... They showed that they can be a little bit discerning, that they're not totally suckered by a good backstory over talent."
While Minaj's antics are entertaining now, Santilli wondered if once we get beyond the edited try outs to the live performances, the rapper's tendency to pull focus toward herself might mess with the rhythm of the show.
"I'm worried about when the live shows begin and everyone has to play off each other," she said. "I'm wondering how that chemistry will work and if people won't be turned off by that."
If Mariah and Nicki can figure out a way to keep their rivalry more playful than spiteful, Slezak said it could make for the most entertaining "Idol" season in years.
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