As American Idol lurches into its first live episodes of the season and the show's viewers prepare to start voting tonight, I've got two thoughts about how Fox's onetime ratings champ is doing these days.
First, there's one judge who might be the most compelling presence since Simon Cowell last made a young singer cry onstage: Hip-hop diva Nicki Minaj.
And the reason she stands out is also unique. She's the first American Idol judge who also came of age in the reality TV era.
At 30, Minaj was edging out of her teens when Idol first debuted on American TV in 2002. She handles herself on the show as if she instinctively understands the bizarre stew of spectacle, sass, charm and conflict that makes most unscripted TV hits really work.
Before the new season even hit the airwaves, gossip columns were filling with news of Minaj's conflicts with fellow new judge Mariah Carey. In the world of reality TV, that made all kinds of sense. Like a new Real Housewives character landing in the franchise, she went after the biggest ego on the stage, well aware that the unpredictable, uncontainable characters are the ones who get the most attention.
In early interviews with journalists, Minaj talked about reaching a new audience through Idol and getting a chance to reach so-called "mainstream" viewers with her bright pink lipstick-wearing, platinum blond wig-sporting, British accent-loving persona.
But in her comments so far, she has done anything but play it safe. She challenges contestants even as Carey plays the old game (perfected by departed judges Paula Abdul and Jennifer Lopez) of being the politician who cares too much about each singer to get in their faces. Even when they need it.
"I literally wrote 'Why are you smiling…?' " Minaj told one singer, who was beaming while singing a depressing ballad. "That was a pageant delivery. We don't want you to smile at us if it doesn't really connect to the song."
One of her biggest arguments with Carey came after the show's three other judges tried to pressure a singer who admitted she "tried the country thing" and was more comfortable melding country and soul music to suit her instincts.
Whether she has consciously focused on this or not, Minaj is pushing the other judges to accept odder, less conventional singers, shaking up a formula that has produced five straight winners who are cute-looking, unassuming white guys with guitars (yup, even countrified baritone Scotty McCreery played guitar on the show, occasionally).
Minaj's efforts couldn't come at a better time. Last Wednesday, the show was out-rated among young viewers by both ABC's comedy Modern Family and the A&E series Duck Dynasty.
New efforts to make the show look hipper, using Twitter to take instant polls of the audience and creating online platforms allowing people to vote 50 times at once beginning tonight, seem mostly like Hail Mary passes. (The show also seems to have fielded a crop of singers where the women outstrip the guys, Naples-raised Lazaro Arbos notwithstanding.)
The real key to success for Idol will come from looking more like Minaj than Mariah.
Wonder if Fox's reality TV franchise is ready for that?