Since fans learned last year that superstars Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were leaving American Idol, one question has consumed the entertainment press, rising again as TV's most-watched singing contest starts its 12th season today:
What's up with the new judges?
A look at 45 minutes of footage from this week's episodes shows rapper/singer Nicki Minaj as the early star, smirky and mercurial. Mariah Carey, who likely expected to be the queen bee, seems oddly detached and unsure how to deal with this charismatic upstart determined to make the most of her time in the Idol spotlight.
"I was like, I'm never going to get the opportunity to be a part of something this big and something that reaches Middle America," Minaj told journalists last week. "I just felt like I really didn't have anything to lose."
Sure, Idol winner Phillip Phillips sold 3 million copies of his first single. But NBC's The Voice proved a singing contest focused on buzzed-about judges can move a network from worst to first in months.
So the question of how Minaj, Carey, Keith Urban and returning judge Randy Jackson work together may be the biggest unknown of the entire television season.
Here's a look at how each judge comes across and what to expect when the show debuts at 8 tonight and Thursday on WTVT-Ch. 13.
Nicki Minaj: This rapper/singer is a clear star of early footage; fearless in challenging fellow judges and auditioners. She encourages awful male contestants to perform more (then hits on them), urges cute male contestants to disrobe (then hits on them), makes faces when fans compliment Carey, and starts fights over anything and everything. Minaj is also astute about what sells to music fans. And if this is what she seems like in the show's pre-taped, heavily-edited audition rounds, just imagine what will happen on live television.
Mariah Carey: The diva, a force in pop music for more than 20 years, suffers from Britney Spears Disease. Spears, a notoriously erratic personality who joined Fox's The X Factor to great fanfare, was so careful to look sane she forgot to be entertaining and is now leaving the show. Carey seems headed down the same road, weighing each word so carefully, she's outdone by Minaj's fearless theatrics.
Keith Urban: A charismatic, upbeat New Zealand-born country star, Urban often serves as a buffer between Carey and Minaj, pleading for calm. His biggest problem: He's too hesitant to tell lackluster contestants they're not cutting it.
Randy Jackson: Much as some joke that he'll show up for an envelope opening, it is tough to imagine Idol without at least one judge who isn't a rookie. Jackson keeps auditions on track and urges fellow judges to be direct with bad singers. If there's a new Simon Cowell in the house, he's it.