"They mostly sat there, uncomfortable and even glassy-eyed," PEOPLE's TV Critic writes of the season 12 premiere

By Tom Gliatto
January 17, 2013 12:00 PM
Michael Becker/FOX

American Idol‘s revamped panel of judges debuted Wednesday on Fox, with Randy Jackson joined by Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Mariah Carey – that same Mariah who’s always been cited as someone’s inspiration, role model or goddess since the show’s very first season, and whose recordings have outsold those of all Idol singers combined.

The premiere was not the happy surprise of season 10’s launch, which introduced judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

Even though Forbes estimates that this new lineup, including host Ryan Seacrest, costs $54 million – the reality-singing competition field is too competitive now to throw in a Paula Abdul and pray – they didn’t work terribly hard for the money.

During auditions in New York City, they mostly sat there glassy-eyed. They seemed uncomfortable with each other and uncommunicative. They could have been poll watchers, pencils in hand, waiting at their cardboard tables by the voting booths.

This was only the opener, true, and auditions to boot. Seacrest is the one who does the heavy lifting in these early episodes, stitching it all together with his urgent, heartfelt narration.

Nicki ended the night by announcing that the judges were gelling. Maybe they are, and possibly they will – although the show’s history indicates that three judges work better than four. But they’re smart, proven entertainers. One can hope.

Mariah was regal, gorgeously serene and tended to refer to everyone as “dahling,” although it wasn’t clear whether she was being ironic, in a Zsa Zsa Gabor way, or serious, also in a Zsa Zsa Gabor way. She has a fine, throaty speaking voice. She should go everywhere draped in black mink, with a limousine inching behind.

Nicki is spectacularly fun to look at, with her vibrant hair and makeup. She’s like a Pez dispenser of herself. Everything about her is so visually exaggerated, in fact, it’s difficult to tell whether she’s sincere when she opens her dazzlingly lacquered lips to speak. This isn’t an ideal quality in a judge, but at least it forces you to watch her.

She and Mariah, so we have been told, already dislike each other so much they’re stockpiling weapons. They mostly muttered at each other through polite smiles in the time-honored tradition of frenemies. By comparson, Simon Cowell and Demi Lovato on The X Factor were like the nemeses from Dangerous Liaisons.

Country star Keith is handsome and seems like a nice man.

Randy, who has been with the show forever, possibly even since before it began, introduced one of the season’s innovations: Seeking out contestants who don’t have the nerve or wherewithal to try out, but have been recommended to the show by friends or family.

And so stolid Jackson traveled to Staten Island and personally invited young Jessica Kartalis to come and sing for the judges. She did, did poorly – and was sent home in tears.

It was an odd, unnecessary humiliation. This should be reserved in hell as a special punishment for aspiring singers.