January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

American Idol is back, its format freshened up with a number of changes. Celebrity judges are off the finals, guys and girls perform on separate nights, and the upper age limit for contestants has gone from 24 to 28. As a fan who has occasionally felt that Idol was getting stale, I have a few additional tweaks for the producers’ consideration:

1. Fewer auditions, please, not more. This would directly contravene one of the new changes, which expands the audition episodes from last season’s three weeks to five weeks. Why? So the fertile fields of America’s wannabes can be combed for every possible William Hung?

2. Enough with the Celine Dion tributes. Stop ransacking the old pop catalog for theme programs. (How about a South Park night? Imagine Clay Aiken singing “Blame Canada.”) And isn’t there some other song style than Dion-scaled belting and trilling (à la Kelly Clarkson, left)? The kids put across their numbers with gutsy power, but the booming of those vocal cannons gets monotonous.

3. Declaw Simon. Yes, he’s indispensable to creating tension. He’s the viper coiled to strike. But I wish, for one night, Paula would be the vicious one while Simon beamed, purred, petted and twinkled. Let the judges break out of character.

4. And bring back Brian Dunkleman (right), Ryan Seacrest’s cohost from season 1. I miss his lurking, unpredictable snarkiness. Or is it just me?

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