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'American Idol' debuts with new judges, but same old formula

After months of hype about judge changes, format updates and rule tweaks, Wednesday's debut of a brand new American Idol revealed a surprising truth:

American Idol 2.0 is a lot like the first version. At least, so far.

It seems impossible. With Aerosmith belter Steven Tyler and pop star Jennifer Lopez joining old hand Randy Jackson at the judges table — just as the show's real rock star Simon Cowell departs — industry types and fans alike were expecting an overhaul that would make New Coke look like a minor revision.

That may eventually come when the live episodes roll out. But what viewers saw Wednesday was the same old mix of freaks and rough diamonds that fill every Idol audition episode, minus Cowell's trademark, super-snarky putdowns and mega-maniacs like the Pants on the Ground Guy.

Featuring clips from auditions in New Jersey, Wednesday's show also wanted to make you love the new kids in town, with segments showing how much Idol auditioners idolize Jenny from the Block and lust after senior citizen rocker Tyler.

In fact, Tyler proved the show's secret weapon, loaded with enough rock 'n' roll lecherousness and folksy sayings to fill a spinoff series of his own.

"Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" he asked one particularly awful contestant, in what would prove the sharpest (and funniest!) line of the night.

"What's with the ooh, ooh bees on your juju bees?" he asked another girl who had pasted stars on her ample chest, later treating the Idol audience to the sight of a 62-year-old celebrity ogling women younger than his own movie star daughter. Kinda like watching the Cryptkeeper size up new prey.

The danger for me was in pining for an Idol that never really existed, exalting Cowell's mean-spirited broadsides as brave truth-telling instead of the baldfaced trolling for buzz-building controversy they really were.

But watching Lopez, Tyler and Jackson allow clearly delusional singers to tackle "one more song" left me wistful for the days when Cowell would bring the hammer down. When one throaty Grace Jones clone claimed her vocal teacher was trying to get her to lose her African accent, I swear I heard Cowell's voice telling her to demand her money back.

Instead, this kinder, gentler Idol let the freaks mostly embarrass themselves, with one shopping mall clerk literally crying her way into a golden ticket to the show's Hollywood Week round. With several episodes left to cover some 125,000 auditioners, including a show at 8 tonight, we've got a lot more tears to go.

Opening with a girl who auditioned for Idol four seasons ago — Lopez impossibly claimed to remember her from watching the show as fan — the show featured a once-wheelchair bound kid with a golden voice, a 16-year-old girl who family survived war in Kosovo and a guy in cargo shorts whose mother sang Sinatra better than he could.

"We did amazing," concluded Jackson at the show's end, sounding suspiciously like he was trying to convince us viewers more than anyone. But with new faces playing the same old game, the jury's still out for this particular critic, for at least a while longer.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.

American Idol airs at 8 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13.

'American Idol' debuts with new judges, but same old formula 01/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 11:20pm]

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