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'American Idol': The seven-year itch?

January 16, 2008 |  7:30 am

Contestant galleryAnd so, again, out of many, (very very many) will come one. In these days of modern entertainment, with all our special effects and fancy editing tricks, somehow we have lost that which throughout history has formed the basis of drama -– the site of a cast of thousands amassed for combat.

Yes, we have our Lords of the Ringses and our Bravehearts with their sweeping pans over millions of little cartoon orcs and swordsmen, but somehow even the best graphic effects the entertainment industrial complex has to offer leave one cold; nothing stirs the heart like a De Mille pan over scores of extras packing their huts, each one in his own way dreaming of escaping to a better life as they race to flee pharaoh.  No amount of modern alchemy can re-create the one plaintive voice amidst the crowd crying at his obstinate mule, “400 years of bondage and today he won't move!”

Today, these vast flesh-and-blood hordes striving for freedom for which our ancient dramatic instincts yearn can be found in one place in our culture: the audition episodes of "American Idol."

As blasé as even the most hardened "Idol" fan may be sitting down for the start of the show’s for-crying-out-loud seventh season, the sight of stadium after stadium filled with people -– 100,000 of them, each one certain that they were destined to climb from obscurity and achieve the highest honor our society can bestow –- mega-stardom, well how can the heart but race at such a sight?

And as the Seacrest voice-over reminded, somewhere amidst this crowd sat one lonely singer who in a mere five months is, in fact, destined for stardom.

But more importantly, amidst those ranks sat 99,976 people who are not remotely destined for stardom –- and breaking that news to them is the business at hand for the next three weeks.

True to form, the first episode –- two hours of highlights of the Philadelphia auditions -– featured the franchise’s stalwarts of heart-rending sob stories, human oddities and a handful of diamonds in the rough.  Some early thoughts on the first glimpse of the new season.

--  Perhaps it’s just getting off to an easy start, but the tone seemed marginally gentler than last year’s pre-season. Last year, of course, it was widely criticized for taking the cruelty to the deluded too far.  In Philadelphia it seemed that the balance was weighted towards the human interest stories -– the disabled daughter, the 200-pound weight loss. The judges' cruelty also seemed less gleefully belligerent, more matter of fact.  Even when they laughed, they apologized.  And of course there was the group hug for one loser.

--  The judges seemed much better rested and less cranky then they did at the start of last season, when they seemed to hit the road immediately fed up and bored.

--  But cruel as it is to laugh when some deluded, possibly mentally ill or damaged person who thinks they are Paul Robeson is singing in front of you like they are choking on a dinner roll, my gosh, anyone with a pulse would be hard-pressed not to break down during some of these.

--  In interviews over the last couple of weeks, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has said that there are three singers who will immediately leap out in the auditions as early huge favorites.  I am not sure we saw any of them last night, except possibly Chris Watson from Dover, Del., who sang “Follow Me” and whom Simon looked at instantly like a star.

--  That said, based on one night of singing, I declare Kristie Lee Cook, the Oregon kickboxer to be the front-runner, although she might be too overtly attractive, which means she can only go as high as ninth place in the finals.

--  It takes a very self-confident show to close its premiere episode with a voice-over by an albeit extremely strange young lady dressed as Princess Leia who nonetheless offers a pointed and not entirely insane critique of the sameness of Idol contestants.

But finally, at the end of the beginning, one must just stand back and note with no tiny amount of awe the capacity of this nation of ours to produce a seemingly limitless supply of very, very strange, very untalented people who are convinced that they are meant to be stars. Where do they all come from?  How do they all survive?  And where can we see them sing the rest of the year?

This truly is "American Idol."  America’s journey has begun again.

-- Richard Rushfield