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SHOW TRACKER

The sleeping giant awakens for Season 6

Many hopefuls get dashed as `American Idol' returns on Fox.

January 18, 2007|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

NOT a show to hide its light under a bushel, the reigning heavyweight champion of prime-time television, "American Idol," thundered back to the airwaves Tuesday night, proclaiming the full weight of its showbiz-shaking credentials from the very first moment.

Season 6 began with a slow-motion flashback, set to portentous war drums, to last season's close, the Taylor Hicks coronation. "Together," Ryan Seacrest proclaimed, "we've created a phenomenon. Together, we've changed lives and discovered remarkable talents."

Trumpets flourished as Seacrest incanted the roll call of "Idol" triumphs past: Kelly Clarkson -- the original Idol, potential Oscar contender Jennifer Hudson, country superstar Carrie Underwood, America's sweetheart Katharine McPhee (OK, maybe that's a stretch) and a hundred No. 1 CD's.

Cue the Who's intro to "Baba O'Reilly" and montages of stadiums filling up with this year's contenders (more than 100,000 in seven cities), and somewhere in one of those crowds sits at least one auditionee bound for bona fide stardom. There is little subtle about "American Idol," but unless you are a complete rejectionist of contemporary American culture, it is hard to deny the effectiveness with which the Fox show wields its grand dramatic sweep, especially as each season seems to propel its finalists to ever greater heights of fame, raising the stakes and, against all odds, making it more relevant as it ages.

The auditions kicked off on a gleefully spiteful note. In contrast to last year, when the holy trinity seemed rundown and cranky from the tour's very start, the judges mounted the review stand in a seemingly peppy and cranky mood this year, laughing through half-baked renditions of "Under Pressure" and otherworldly Prince covers with an energetic dismissiveness.

Missing was the sympathetic note from designated nice judge Paula Abdul, who turned in a subdued performance, free of both empathy for the losers and her trademark disintegrating breakdown moments. (Those on Paula crazywatch would find little supporting evidence.)

Guest judge Jewel seemed on hand mostly to demonstrate her skills at sitting up straight and smiling blankly while cultivating a Paris Hilton look. The audition episodes always dangerously tread the line between useful and needless cruelty when delivering the news to those with misguided thoughts of becoming a singer. As Simon Cowell told one contestant, "The good news today is you found out what you're not going to be so you can just move on."

However, as the camera followed that contestant, a devoted Jewel fan, out into the hall and lingered as she broke down in inconsolable sobbing to her family, what initially seemed like good fun turned into something more brutal.

And then the guy in the Uncle Sam costume and boxing gloves got up to sing Italian arias. Get ready for another good hard look in the mirror, America.

richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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Show Tracker is a new column that follows television series through their highs and lows.

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