There's a very good reason "American Idol" has been the top show on TV for the past six years running: Its producers know how to milk the drama, cue the laughs and suck you in with just the right mix of goofy, crazy good and, well, just plain crazy singers.
All that and more was on display on the first night of the show's 10th season on Wednesday (January 19), an evening "Idol" fans have been patiently waiting for since last summer when things went a bit haywire with their favorite show.
Though "Idol" normally exists inside a bubble that is immune to the outside world, there was no getting around the earthshaking drama that occurred over the past seven months, including the departure of founding lead judge Simon Cowell and the exit of short-timers Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi.
Rules were changed, the age limit was lowered to 15 and just about every name in the pop world was bandied about as a possible replacement for Cowell. So it was fitting that the top of Wednesday night's show included a montage of the rabid speculation about who the new judges would be.
And, despite assuring viewers that this season is not about the new kids on the block — Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and pop star Jennifer Lopez — but about the singers, there was also a splashy montage that followed introducing the new panelists, packed with plenty of glamour shots and slow-motion catwalk struts.
What nobody knew was how these two new faces would fit into the well-established "Idol" mix. The good news is, they slipped in just fine, and, in fact, Tyler quickly proved to be just the breath of fresh (and sometimes wacky) air the show needed going into the season of uncertainty.
The first stop on the televised audition rounds was New Jersey, and right away, the new judges asserted their personalities, with Lopez fondly remembering a previous contestant and giving her some tough-love advice on making it in Hollywood. Tyler's charms shone through in nearly every audition, including one in which he mimed along, stomping his feet and rapping his knuckles on the table to the Ray Charles song "Hallelujah I Love Her So."
The show's first 15-year-old auditioner, Pennsylvania's Kenzie Palmer, did a nice job on Carrie Underwood's "We're Young and Beautiful," but Lopez was the only one feeling it until she convinced her cohorts to rethink their votes with a little of her Jenny From the Block sass.
As always, the real test came when the clunkers stepped to the big "Idol" logo and blew it. "You gotta pull those wild horses in," Tyler counseled one contestant, as Lopez struggled to say no and break a heart. "This is awful. Oh my God, I hate this!" she wailed in mock pain, biting her lip while saying "no" even as Tyler quickly got the hang of letting the kids down easy.
The night's first heartstring moment came when 16-year-old Robbie Rosen — who spent some of his childhood in a wheelchair — sang a soulful take on the Beatles' "Yesterday" and won over the panel with his schoolboy charm. "Beautiful!" Tyler said to the kid who had watched every season of the show and long dreamt of getting his shot. They also fell for spunky Southern belle Victoria Huggins, 16, of Lumberton, North Carolina, who surprised the judges with a full-throated "Midnight Train to Georgia" and charmed them with her oversize personality.
As always in the early rounds, it was mostly a parade of crackpots, nasal wheezers and goofy white guys in plaid shirts singing R&B — badly. "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" Tyler asked after a murderous take on a Tina Turner tune. Whereas Cowell used to slay them with meanness, Tyler seemed to have instantly perfected the art of the playful, entertaining putdown, adding a new wrinkle to the judge's mix.
The king of the reject singers was Japanese native Yoji "Pop" Asano, a 25-year-old Brooklyn student who sang (OK, squeaked) Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." like nobody ever has, or should, while tossing in some spastic Michael Jackson dance moves.
And then there are the ones you never see coming, like twitchy Ashley Sullivan, 25, who confused the panel with a bombastic show tune that initially got her the boot. But when the waterworks started coming and Sullivan's quirky (OK, unhinged) personality started to shine, Lopez and Tyler couldn't bear to say no, putting her through to Hollywood over Randy Jackson's objections.
Yonkers, New York, native Melinda Ademi, a 16-year-old daughter of immigrant refugees from war-torn Kosovo, had the kind of dramatic story arc custom-made for "Idol." But she also happened to have some serious pipes too. Her "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys won her a golden ticket, inspiring Tyler to quip, "You won the lottery twice."
Other promising prospects included 20-year-old Times Square singing waitress Devyn Rush, who did a nicely nuanced job on a jazzy "God Bless the Child." Lopez, who knows a thing or two about being a glamour puss, advised Rush to match her golden inside with some glittery duds that would make her look like a star as well.
Staten Island's Brielle Von Hugel had another heartstring-tugging backstory. In addition to being a fresh-faced beauty with a flower in her hair, she grew up crooning with her doo-wop-singing dad, who was diagnosed with throat cancer before her sweet 16. Her "Endless Love" melted hearts, and the judges made it official after bringing her Pops in to witness her golden-ticket moment.
As is often the case, the producers saved the best for last, with tough-luck Bronx kid Travis Orlando, 16, telling his tale of surviving his borough's mean streets and life in a shelter before doing a soulful Jason Mraz-like take on the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." Tyler asked for some more, so Orlando served up a scatty slide through Mraz's "I'm Yours" that worked for the panel. They brought out his ecstatic twin brother and overjoyed mom, who squeezed him in a family sandwich as Lopez told him to "really bring it in Hollywood, OK?"
Who was your favorite from the "Idol" premiere? Is the new judges' panel working for your? Share your reviews in the comments!
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