Wasn’t it just the other day that we crowned Fantasia Barrino the new American Idol? Can it really be time again already for that guiltiest of guilty pleasures? Well, judging from the all-too-familiar theme music and the resurgence of host Ryan Seacrest on to televisions across America, there’s no question: “American Idol” is back.
The new season should be an interesting one, if only because everyone is expecting the steam to finally run out. While more viewers have tuned in with each subsequent iteration of the show, there’s little question that the format is growing a bit stale. The audience can really only take so much of Simon Cowell berating the horribly deluded souls who show up for the first-round auditions–or can they? Will the producers have the guts to try something new and different this time around, or will it just be more of the same?
With the opening of the fourth season tonight, one change was immediately clear: “AI” has gone high-def. As part of Fox’s major upgrade of its primetime line-up, “American Idol” has become one of the first reality shows to be broadcast in high definition, complete with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (with which the unchanged theme song sounds quite spiffy). Of course, does this show really need crystal clear picture? If nothing else, you can see what bad skin everybody seems to have, and the widescreen format allows for better framing of the four judges.
Yes, the inimitable trio of Randy, Paula, and Simon will be joined by a rotating panel of guest judges this time around. In past seasons, famous singers and songwriters had appeared in the later rounds of the competition when the them of a particular week pertained directly to their back catalog, resulting in weeks in which only songs by Elton John, Barry Manilow, and Gloria Estefan were sung. Now, guest judges enter into the process much earlier, even getting a vote in the all-important first round.
Mark McGrath of the rock band Sugar Ray held his own surprising well, though he didn’t exactly rock the boat. In fact, he was in the majority for every discussion that was televised, never going against the group to strike out with his own opinion. Nor were his comments particularly insightful or different from anything the veterans had to say. While adding new blood like McGrath is certainly a step in the right direction, one has to hope that future guests will add a little more to the proceedings.
The two hours of auditions from Washington DC broadcast for the fourth season’s premiere could have just as easily been culled from any one of the preceding three. There were good singers, of whom we got to see very few. There were average singers, of whom we saw even less. And there were bad singers–make that very bad singers, for whom “American Idol” has become famous, perhaps even more so than for its far more talented winners.
Through the whole thing, the sense of “been there, done that” was overwhelming. While America has a seemingly unlimited appetite for schadenfreude, a little variety would be nice, at the very least. There’s something inherently satisfying about watching Simon Cowell shatter the dreams of delusional youngsters (and some oldsters, this time around, since the age limit has been raised to 28), but he seems to be running out of new and interesting ways to do so.
What was promising about the debut were the few hopefuls who got more than a cursory few moments in the audition room. The producers seem committed to following the stories of a handful of the contestants a bit more in-depth this season, perhaps spurred on by the immense interest in Fantasia’s status as a single mother last season. To that end, there were two stories worth following tonight.
The first was Regina Brooks, who pawned her wedding ring for $200 in order to be able to come to DC to audition for the show. Her desire was so genuine and heartfelt that you couldn’t help but root for her, especially when the judges called her husband–who didn’t want her to audition–into the room. She’s only an okay singer, though, so one has to wonder not only how she’ll get the money to go to Hollywood for the next round, but also how crushing it will be when she finally gets eliminated.
Rockers have never fared well on American Idol, but that didn’t stop Constantine Maroulis, the lead singer for a heavy metal band, from turning out to audition. The judges put him through, but the real drama came when Ryan Seacrest showed up at his band’s rehearsal to announce that Constantine had made it to the next round of the show. The band was less than thrilled to be losing its front man to a “bubblegum” show.
While Regina and Constantine have interesting backstories, the best singer of the night was unquestionably Anwar Robinson, a junior high music teacher with a fantastic voice. He’s an early favorite to make it to the top 12 this time around.
Fox is definitely set to Idol overload, with another hour of auditions airing tomorrow, eventually gearing up to the show being broadcast in some form or another a total of three nights a week. Can you get too much of a good thing? Stay tuned…