American Idol 10: same show, same lies, just now with hitting on 16-year-olds

Six months after the drama over its judges erupted, American Idol 10 debuted, and we got our first look at the revamped series and new judges. The short version is that, after one episode, it is nearly the same show it was last year, just without Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, and Kara DioGuardi, and with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. Oh, and Randy Jackson is there, mostly forgettable, as always.

Steven Tyler was the night’s breakout star, but that was predictable based on the crazy way he interacted with TV critics. He’s full of random thoughts, some of which are hilarious “well hellfire save matches, fuck a duck and see what hatches”; “we’re all here because we’re not all there”) and some of which is highly disturbing (commenting on how much leg a 16-year-old’s skirt revealed, he said, “Oh yeah, just the right amount showing. That’s nice.”). He wasn’t afraid to be funny and quasi-mean, asking one awful singer, “Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?” and then sarcastically commenting, “you’re a natural for Broadway–he’ll be a big star.”

Jennifer Lopez seemed challenged by judging–and let’s be honest, none of the judges really judged. They found a middle ground where they were able to say yes or no without doing much more. J Lo expressed consternation even at that, however, saying, “This is awful. Oh my god I hate this! Why did I sign up for this? I want to go home!” and asking Randy Jackson, “How did you do this for 10 years?”

But she was also amusing at times and empathetic in a good way, and at least she wasn’t leering at contestants. “You looking down, boy? I see you looking down,” Steven Tyler said to Randy while J Lo hugged crying person with silver stars on her nipples. (Later, that contestant covered her breasts with her jacket as she sang a second song–enough with multiple songs!–and said, “I’m going to close it because it’s more emotional.”)

The show also kept up with its ridiculous lies about the actual audition process. As usual, Ryan Seacrest acted as if the masses of people showed up over two days and all paraded in front of the judges; the process takes many days and involves many different auditions before a select few go in front of the judges, but pretending that isn’t true was even more absurd this year because auditions began weeks and weeks before Ellen quit, Kara was fired, and Steven Tyler and J Lo were hired. Also, auditions began in Nashville, not New Jersey.

Besides some decent singers, there were fun moments in the first episode, from Seacrest falling backwards in a chair to a camera operator trying to get a shot of a contestant doing flips and instead getting his camera and body smashed by the contestant, who landed in the wrong place. More outtakes, please.

There was also a new opening sequence; I’m convinced the production designer loves sci-fi movies, because the spinning globe thing that the show has used for years looks just like the machine built for Jodie Foster in Contact, and now the new opening starts with something sharp and pointy opening up and a bright beam of light coming out of it, just like an upside-down version of the alien spaceships in Independence Day that obliterated whatever was underneath them.

As to the contestants–yes, there were some of those, including some with sad stories that we knew were sad stories because they were accompanied by sad music–they were okay. A few awful ones, but no crazy costumed people or insane senior citizens.

Perhaps the most surprising and disturbing was 16-year-old Victoria Huggins, who introduced herself by saying, “It’s not normal for a 16-year-old to want something very badly.” (That’s pretty much all I did when I was 16, but maybe that’s just me.) She sang well, and was happy, but was also extremely annoying, though she sparred well with the judges. After Steven Tyler complemented her legs, she said, “I have to appeal to the boy audience, yet I want to be a lady.” See? The perfect combination of wit, politeness, cheerfulness, strangeness, and creepiness.

Like so many others, even weaker singers–she is off to Hollywood, which is when I suspect we’ll get a better sense of this new season, the judges, and the contestants. For now, it’s the same old American Idol.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.