American Idol recap: First performance night reveals better contestants, still nice (but occasionally naughty) judges
Is it too early to say that Fox has officially saved American Idol?
Ratings-wise, that's pretty clear. With viewership down about 10 percent from last year, you can almost feel Idol producers relaxing a bit, as the loss of star Simon Cowell hasn't kept the singing competition from dominating the ratings game.
And Tuesday's episode, featuring the 12 male semi-finalists in the show's first full-on performance episode on a stage surrounded by the audience, proved that efforts to upgrade the level of contestants has also borne fruit -- with three or four stars emerging early and a few diamonds in the rough who might grow under Idol producers' watchful eyes.
What we didn't see: talent coach/mentor Jimmy Iovine. With 12 singers to cram in two hours, there was little time for anything besides singing and judging. And, of course, the show's less caustic judging panel lowered the boom gently on the show's less inspired competitors and loudly cheered those who stepped up strongly.
This show wasn't exactly live; with a dozen singers onstage, producers taped Tuesday and tonight's performance shows in advance to keep things flowing quickly as possible (that Idol isn't rushing to tell viewers that, is just another one of the show's soft lies -- like editing the early shows to make it seem that star judges see singers fresh off the huge cattle call auditions, instead of weeks later)
Still, the judges had a hard time varying their responses, especially when singers performed well. Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler told performers they "knocked it out of park" several times; Randy Jackson has always pulled his evaluations from a grab bag of stock phrases, though he only accused a couple singers of being "pitchy" or sounding like karaoke performers.
They got off some good lines, too. When dock worker Jovany Barreto loosed an emotional version of Edwin McCain's I'll Be, Tyler shot back "Holy shipyards!" Later, he'd hold a sign with the show's logo in front of his mouth whenever he felt the need to drop a four-letter exclamation.
Jennifer Lopez accused red-headed Florida crooner Brett Loewenstern of more "hair tossing than me and Beyonce put together," in a performance of Light My Fire that made him look a little like an ingenue. Other singers, like the promising Jordan Dorsey (left), tackled songs that just didn't show off their vocal abilities well; where was "vocal coach from hell" Peggi Blue when Dorsey was picking a tune like Usher's OMG, a song sung in a monotone that gave little room for anything beyond a bad impersonation of the original.
Standouts Tuesday included Clint Jun Gamboa's electrifying take on Stevie Wonder's Superstition; James Durbin (who still risks becoming an Adam Lambert clone with the stratospheric singing) bringing Judas Priest to Idol for the first time; Jacob Lusk, the R&B wonder who always seems on the verge of losing vocal control and Scott McCreary, whose deep-voiced country-isms are amazing, but also amazingly limited. Expect him to struggle when forced out of that comfort zone.
In the end, Tuesday's episode was in line with Idol's other changes -- just enough of a upgrade to spark your interest, not enough to change the show you've always known.
Which, judging by recent history, just might be enough.