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Television review: 'American Idol'

A newfound stability and stature from the revamped judging panel help mask the absence of Simon Cowell in the fresh and encouraging Season 10 premiere.

January 21, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • "American Idol" Season 10 judges Steven Tyler, left, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson.
"American Idol" Season 10 judges Steven Tyler, left, Jennifer… (Michael Becker, Fox )

Season 10 and "American Idol" finally brought in a couple of pros.

Whether new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will find and foster an actual pop star or create the ratings-generating buzz of their predecessors remains to be seen. (Wednesday night's opener was the lowest-rated premiere since its first season and was down 13% compared with last year's, but with an audience of 26.2 million, it easily trounced the competition.)

But as soon as they took their seats, it was as if the elephant in the room had finally ambled out of view — for the first time in the history of the show, the immature fumblings and flailings of the contestants as they fight to find their feet will not be mirrored by the judges table.

Not only are they undeniably great to look at, but Lopez and Tyler are also longtime stars who have nothing to gain or lose by being part of "American Idol," which means they are neither frantic to establish themselves as "personalities" nor cowed by the prospect of a misstep. After the bipolar antics of last year's woefully mismatched panel (a mealy-mouthed Ellen DeGeneres, a manically flirtatious Kara DioGuardi), Tyler's confident humor and Lopez's natural grace proved such a blessed relief that the big question of the evening — Can the show survive without Simon Cowell? — was quickly eclipsed by the realization that the show finally has a panel of judges who are not actually physically painful to watch.

The reality belied the troubling "selected scenes" preview DVD Fox recently sent out that seemed to cast Tyler as the group's Cap'n Jack Sparrow and Lopez as its Lady Madonna. The two had what might become signature moments — Tyler got bleeped; Lopez appeared genuinely agonized at times — but Tyler was far from addled and Lopez no squishy Ellen.

"Baby, you got so much drama, but you've got no notes," Tyler told one young woman during the premiere, 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 Rios, 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."

Randy Jackson, meanwhile, got to play the bemused veteran, a role that suited him well after so many years of being the panel's "also ran." "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 Minnelli of pop music." But there was something so eminently sane about the new trio, something so professional yet friendly about — to borrow a very overused "Idol" term — their energy, that even Jackson seemed shiny and new, more relaxed and less reliant on tired tics and predictable 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 more than that Cowell relentlessly viewed performers through the gimlet eye of a producer, the money man who saw success as a semi-predictable marketing formula rather than an artist's ability to balance the passion of self-expression with the dedication and self-control necessary to succeed. To Cowell, even passion was simply part of a grander calculation.

Tyler and Lopez, on the other hand, are performers, time- and road-tested, who have experienced failure as well as success, and the difference in how they perceive talent 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 taking up space learning how to be stars themselves.

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