'American Idol' finally has a grown-ups table
Whether or not new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will be able to find and foster an actual pop star or generate the love/hate buzz of their predecessors remains to be seen.
But moments into Wednesday night’s season premiere, it was gratifyingly clear that for the first time in a long time the fumblings and flailings of contestants fighting to find their feet on stage will not be mirrored by the judges table.
Not only are they great to look at, Lopez and Tyler are long-time stars who have nothing to gain, or lose, by being part of "American Idol."
And after the bipolar antics of last year's woefully mismatched panel -- including a zombified Ellen DeGeneres and a manically flirtatious Kara DioGuardi -- their natural confidence in front of the camera was such a blessed relief that it was hard to miss even the bracing ballistics of Simon Cowell.
A "selected scenes" preview DVD sent out by Fox last week was slightly troubling, with Tyler clearly being cast as the crazy Captain Jack Sparrow of the group and Lopez its Lady Madonna.
"Baby, you got so much drama but you've got no notes," Tyler told one young woman, quickly establishing himself as capable of telling the truth in a colorful but nonhostile way.
"We say yes, to the singing," Lopez said firmly to Tiffany Rio who had opened her jacket to reveal a bikini top bedecked with two strategically placed stars. "Work on that. You want to be taken seriously."
For much of the two hours, Randy Jackson mostly played the bemused veteran. "I think they're both insane," he said at one point when his co-judges sent one young woman on to Hollywood after she told them she wanted to be the "Liza Minelli of pop music."
It was a role that suited him after years of being the panel's undeniable "also ran," and there was something so eminently sane about the new trio, something so professional yet friendly about, to borrow a very over-used "Idol" term, the energy in the room that even Jackson seemed shiny and new, more relaxed and less reliant on tired tics and posturing.
Jackson, and virtually everyone else has said repeatedly that Cowell is irreplaceable and that is certainly true in terms of biting wit and his signature air of jaded impatience.
But Cowell always viewed performers through the gimlet eye of a producer, the money man who saw success more as a marketing formula than a matter of personality or even talent. To Cowell, even passion was simply part of a grander equation.
Tyler and Lopez are performers, time- and road-tested, who have experienced failure as well as success, and even in the first two hours the difference in how they perceive performances made the show more interesting than it has been in a while.
Although they seem to understand, as Cowell did, that false hope is not an act of kindness, they may see things that past judges did not.
"You won’t find many people like that, that kind of enthusiasm," Tyler said of the Liza wannabe who essentially pleaded her way into the next round. "I am going to personally work that into something good."
He may be all talk, the initial good cheer may wear thin and we may be begging to be slapped around by Cowell in a few weeks, but for now it's just nice to have judges who aren't learning how to be stars themselves. Which means that this year, maybe the show can be about finding a real American idol.
-- Mary McNamara
Photo: Tyler, Lopez and Jackson at the judging table. Credit: Michael Becker/Fox.