By Todd Peterson
February 19, 2004 10:54 AM

It’s a brand new “American Idol,” and one thing is abundantly clear this season: the judges have grown spines.

Simon Cowell, of course, has always had a steel girder wrapped in barbed wire running the length of his back. But Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul seem determined not to be upstaged by Simon’s caustic comments any longer, which has resulted in a leaner — and meaner — show than in previous seasons.

Pity the contestants who are battling to become finalists, such as the group that passed through Tuesday’s episode.

As the show began the second round of the first contestant cuts, fans would have expected the talent to start shining. But according to the judges, it wasn’t happening. “This is going from bad to worse,” Jackson said at one point.

Even by the time Wednesday’s show rolled around — when America’s choices for two of the eight finalists were revealed — Simon could not disguise his disgust over the previous night’s performances. When asked by host Ryan Seacrest which two he would like to see go on, Simon said that he hoped Camile Velasco, an 18-year-old from Hawaii, would advance — but beyond her, he didn’t care which contestant followed because they were all equally bad. It was, Seacrest said, “a contentious show.”

Ultimately Velasco and Matthew Rogers, a hulking 25-year-old singer from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., advanced to the next round.

FOX’s “American Idol” airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m.