Randy Jackson, left, Mariah Carey, Ryan Seacrest, Nicki Minaj and Keith… (Michael Becker, Fox )
It's become hard to tell who exactly is competing for the title "American Idol," the contestants or the judges. Wednesday night's season premiere may pay homage to the stars the show has launched, but it's doubtful that any competition will be quite as fierce as that between new judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey.
Not surprisingly, early publicity has focused on an alleged diva-feud — what, after all, could be more delicious? — with rumors of off-set take-downs and on-camera eye-rolling. If we hadn't already witnessed similar cat-fight issues between host Ryan Seacrest and former judge Simon Cowell, this might seem dishearteningly sexist, but really it's just television.
Entering its 12th season, "American Idol" suffers from so much built-in predictability that a certain level of narrative manipulation is to be expected. To introduce an "All About Eve" twist — Minaj's idea of making nice in the press is to acknowledge that she has looked up to Carey for "so many years" — was obviously too tantalizing to resist. Why else cast two such different strong-minded women?
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When Jennifer Lopez and Steve Tyler joined Randy Jackson at the big table two years ago, they brought not only a level of old- and new-school street cred, they ratcheted up the value of judge as talking point. Lopez was maternal and glamorous, Tyler insightful and outrageous.
Both saw the value-added career benefits of "Idol" — Lopez had long been interested in reality TV — and both were done in two years. The hiring of Minaj, Carey and Keith Urban takes things one step further away from the show's initial grass-roots, "hey kid, I can make you a star" appeal. Drafting artists still very much mid-career may result in counsel and criticism that is on-the-ground contemporary, but it also makes "American Idol" more of a platform for established stars to expand their personal brands.
In a 45-minute preview released by Fox, Minaj seems the most matter-of-fact about grasping this opportunity, clearly viewing "American Idol" as just another episode in the larger narrative of "The Nicki Minaj Show." She's quick to offer a response, effusive in her praise, stern in her views on what fans want, and determined to win the hearts of contestants and the television audience with both tenderness and tough talk.
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More important, with her trademark Land of Oz fashions, she looks like a fully decorated Christmas tree in a forest of poplars.
Carey's attempts to appear regal and vaguely disdainful in the face of Minaj's fast-talking barrage fall almost completely flat. Her features are too soft for her to pull a Maggie Smith, and when your costar has candy floss hair, a cunning leopard skin hat and blue glitter eye shadow, who can look at anything else?
Positioned between them, with his bright blue eyes and Aussie accent, Urban can't help but look good — he's handsome and he's the new guy. But where his laid-back personality provides a contrast to Minaj's look-at-me demeanor, Carey's decision to maintain a royal distance does her no favors. She may want to look wise but too often she appears bored, regretful of her decision to join this ridiculous show that requires her to sit for hours in uncomfortably restrictive undergarments listening to that crazy Nicki Minaj talk too much.
As the only surviving member of the original judges table, Jackson appears by turns exasperated — did any of these new folks even bother to watch previous seasons? — and simply worn out. Knowing what he, and we, know about how the system works, it is understandably difficult for him to get all worked up over the sort of voice that sounds nice in preliminary auditions but will certainly not make it through the next round.
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Though he acted as something of a mentor to previous new judges, he now seems content to sit back and let Nicki and Mariah get into it. Judging by the sizzle reel, their disagreements often occurred while some poor contestant stood helplessly by, awaiting his or her fate.
We can only hope that these moments will be few and far between on the actual show. While there is a cheesy-cheap thrill to be had watching two stars scrabble over a bit of spotlight, having them do it in front of the earnest young hopefuls makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Instructive though — the show made its fortune pushing fame, so there is something to be said for showing where that kind of fame can lead. Right back to "American Idol."
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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