Michael becker/FOX
Tom Gliatto
January 19, 2011 09:00 AM

American Idol, returning for its tenth season Wednesday night, finds itself at a crossroads. The Simon Cowell Era is ended – along with the Year of Ellen DeGeneres and the relatively brief reign of Kara DioGuardi. Randy Jackson is the sole remaining judge on a new panel featuring rocker Steven Tyler and queenly pop star-actress Jennifer Lopez.

There are some big questions for Idol: How crucial was Cowell’s barbed intelligence? And how can the show, which is the most powerful reality program of all, recapture its vitality? You may remember – or just as likely may not – how last season’s finale came down to Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox. This was like being handed a cheese platter evenly split between Velveeta cubed and Velveeta sliced. What will it take to keep Idol fun? Below, I offer some considerations in three broad areas:

QUIZ: Are You an Idol All-Star?

The Host: Ryan Seacrest, that busy, immaculately suited little bee, has become as integral to the show as the judges – and now, with Jackson the only veteran face on camera, he may become even more so. It would be only natural for Seacrest to want to take up more airtime. This is practically a matter of physics – the way a gas expands in a container. I hope not. Seacrest is a good host, light on his feet, but he’s become more of the singers’ advocate since Paula “Tears of Joy” Abdul decamped. His attempts to argue with and score points off Cowell were annoying. Regardless of his fame, he’s not the equal of the judges. Unfortunately, there are no formal checks and balances, so he can’t be impeached if he goes too far. This will take vigilance.

The Judges: It was right to cut back from four to three judges – four felt less like a panel and more like a tribunal – and it was right to leave out DioGuardi, who seemed to be under the impression that she was Maria Callas in Master Class. An overhaul was in order. But the few advance audition clips I’ve seen are … hmmmm, not sure. Lopez has a taffeta sweetness, like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, while Tyler plays the goofball. Jackson said recently that this season he’ll be more pointed, instead of moaning “Awwwwwww” when he disapproves. That would be good. I guess we’ll just have to see – these judges need to establish rapport with each other and with the singers, while also articulating their critical expectations. They’re the ones who are really auditioning right now. Good luck!

The Songs: The show has brought in Interscope Geffen A&M chairman and superstar producer Jimmy Iovine as a musical mentor and coach, so maybe he’ll manage to make Idol‘s music sound fresh. Because it seldom does. How is it that Glee performs a range of hits in a fundamentally choral style and energizes them, whereas so many Idol performances sound like something from a summer-camp production of Rent? This time there’ll be original songs from the contestants, which should be interesting. I’m not sure the season’s plan to fly contestants to Vegas to sing Beatles songs is inspired, but at least the Beatles catalog is filled with great numbers that are open to interpretation. (Caveat: I don’t ever want to hear anything again like Michael Lynche’s “Eleanor Rigby” from season 9. It made me want to put my face in a jar by the door.) Also, how about no more Frank Sinatra Night? Thanks.

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