‘American Idol’ Recap: Steven Tyler’s the New Simon — in a Good Way

TheWrap’s real-time weigh-in on whether the new “Idol” works

Last Updated: January 20, 2011 @ 10:53 AM

Wednesday's "American Idol" season premiere had a fun twist: Not only did we get contestants auditioning for the judges, but also judges auditioning for our begrudging respect.

With Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez finally making their debut, the show answered lots of questions: Will they get along? Will any judge  dominate? (Yes!) Has Randy Jackson learned to give helpful criticisms after all these years? Can the show survive without Simon Cowell? (Yes, again.)

Also read: How it Went With the Demon, the Dawg, and the Demon of Screamin'

 Just so we understand how important all this is, it all kicked off with a dramatic recap of the newbies' chaotic selection last year, complete with a heartbeat sound effect before they're introduced to hordes of screaming fans. The best intro is Steven Tyler's because he punctuates it with a wailing scream.

More drama? Ryan Seacrest referred to the night as "the dawn of our 10th season" and used the word "epic" — a serious word that should only be used for things written by Homer and new "Mummy" sequels.

Do you ever go to what you think is a good movie and then see a bunch of previews for movies soundtracked by "Who Let The Dogs Out?" And then you realize that some marketing person has determined that the movie you're about to see is for stupid people? That's kind of how I felt in the first few minutes of "Idol," as it explained to me who Steven Tyler is.

How disconnected from music do they think we are?

After a commercial break, we meet our first contestant of the season, Rachel from New York City, who also auditioned in Season 6 with a kooky opera thing. J. Lo says she remembers her and would have passed her through.

See sings "Hallelujah," a gorgeous song, but not that well, in my opinion. My fiancee, who is also watching, disagrees. Steven Tyler seems to like her, and J. Lo thinks she could have been better.

Rachel confesses some nerves.

"I've sung for famous judges before, but they weren't people that I've looked up to since I was like four years old," she says.

"UH-UMM," says Randy, who was among the judges she performed for last time.

Still, the judges pass her to the next round in Hollywood. Is this a new era of niceness?

Steven Tyler (I'm sorry; I'm incapable of calling him "Steven" or "Tyler") sings along with the next guy to audition. Hopefully this will happen a lot. The guy passes.

Note to judges: You can't pass all of them.

Except next is Kenzie Palmer, the first 15-year-old we see under the show's new younger age limit. I think she's the best so far. Steven Tyler and Randy are initially skeptical, but J. Lo persuades them to let her through.

Next we see a montage of yeses. And, finally, a no.

It's for a woman from the Ivory Coast with a thick accent and a delivery reminiscent of Nico's. Steven Tyler says her melody is off and delivers the best line of the show so far: "You got to pull those wild horses in."

All the judges agree that saying no is hard.

And now, another commercial. And a quick word about why this very silly show sort of matters. Did you know that "Idol," according to an excellent story in Ad Age, has the priciest ad buy of any show? That's why it's so important for Fox that you like these new judges and don't find them too mean, or weird, or nice, or goofy, or anything. So far they seem to be striking a decent balance. But we haven't seen them disagree yet.

And… we're… back. The show does a Jersey montage that indulges in a bunch of "Jersey Shore" stereotypes that somehow make "Jersey Shore" seem clever and early adaptating and "Idol" seem late to the party.

A Jersey girl contestant who demonstrates how Jerseyites comb their hair (It's totally different!) shares J. Lo's Puerto Rican background and wigs out when she meets her. She sings an original song, in her star-tipped bra, about how the judges need to pass her into the next round. It's okay, except for a ghastly high note.

"What's up with the Jujubes on your ooh-ooh Bs?" asks Steven. He's the only quotable one on the show.

Then she sings a real song, and they pass her with advice to tone everything down.

Next up is a montage of the judges saying no. Steven tells one guy that singing is not his forte. Forte is a funny word when spoken by Steven.

Then we meet a young man who used to need a wheelchair. But doesn't now. He does a really overdone, torch-song version of "Yesterday" that epitomizes everything that's showy and obnoxious about "Idol." The judges love it. He passes.

And now a word from someone who isn't a jaded media professional…

Fiancee: This isn't terrible. It isn't as bad as I expected it to be.

I kind of have to sort of agree.

We come back from commercial to a cute montage of contestants who have crushes on Steven and vice versa. It's entertaining. Then we meet an Eagle Scout wearing one of those Jason Mraz-type hats who sings "My Way" — in the style of Phil Hartman doing Frank Sinatra. In New Jersey, because, you know, Sinatra.

He seems to have gone on the show to publicize his Eagle Scout project, which is to discourage texting while driving. Kudos. Everyone: Stop texting while driving. But he doesn't get through.

Cut to commercial. We're almost at the halfway point.

Next up is a nerdy white guy who flagrantly violates the "Showtime at the Apollo Rule," namely: Whenever a nerdy white guy announces he's going to sing an Ike and Tina Turner song, he must unexpectedly blow it out of the water. His performance of "Proud Mary" prompts Steven to ask: "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?"

J. Lo says he sounds like he isn't singing in his own voice. Randy tells him to stop singing, and he doesn't pass. But his friends at the Yo La Tengo concert will be very amused by the hilarious story of the time he was on "American Idol."

Next up is a 25-year-old Britney Spears fan who seems erratic but gets a pass because the judges are freaked out by her.

Cut to another batch of expensive commercials.

We return to preternaturally scary 16-year-old pageant-contestant-like Victoria Huggins, of North Carolina, who needs to be a character in a Christopher Guest movie, stat. She passes, of course.

Next we meet a young woman who fled Kosovo during wartime. Not cool, "Idol." Your show is all about selling cars, not humanity. Of course she's outstanding, and is passed onto Hollywood. This makes life very hard for us cynical monsters.

Commercial.

Next, the judges pass through a singing waitress, proving that anyone with a dream can thrive on "Idol." Then they reject, rightly, someone who oversings "I'm a Believer."

Another commercial.

I keep waiting for some kind of narrative or something to emerge. Probably you are too. But that's not going to happen, is it? This is the stage of the season where everything is just random and absurd. Okay.

And so we meet Yoji "Pop" Asano, a lifelong Michael Jackson impersonator who hates Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." and so wants to sing it. Sure. He throws in some top-notch MJ moves. He doesn't really kill it on the song he hates, but he is nonetheless the person, so far, who you would most want to talk to at a friend's boring birthday party.

Fiancee: I don't know about that. You'd want him to be your instructor at a Zumba class.

Me:

Fiancee: It's a type of dance class.

Commercial.

As the audition day starts to draw to a close, we meet a bunch of goofballs who are possibly auditioning ironically and are cut. Then we meet Brielle von Hugel, 16, a girl from Staten Island whose father used to sing doo-wop but was then diagnosed with throat cancer. He's currently cancer-free.

Heartstrings, and genuine agony as he says: "Maybe it's the best week of our lives. I beat cancer, and she's gonna go to Hollywood."

She sings "Endless Love," quite competently, and gets a pass, because the judges would be horrible people if she didn't. They bring her dad in, at Steven's request (Steven is a wonderful man or is playing one on TV) and pass her.

Another commercial.

And in the last installment, we meet the last contestant of the day. He's an extremely photogenic former homeless 16-year-old from the Bronx — like J. Lo! — who has a twin. Travis Orlando sings "Eleanor Rigby" and is — you guessed it — good. But the judges ask for another song.

He sings a Jason Mraz corn-fest, thereby losing my vote, at least for now. (He's only 16.) But he's passed to Hollywood, and cries with joy.

So, to summarize: The new judges are very interested in being nice, and seem to offer generally good opinions and advice, though they're as susceptible to hokeyness as anyone else. Steven Tyler is by far the best part of the show. He occupies the "what-will-he-say" seat formerly filled by Simon Cowell, but he's more fun because he's not so predictably negative.

Finally, if it's not clear, and if you care about disclosure of biases: I used to hate this show, and now find it surprisingly entertaining. The new judges are pretty good, especially Steven Tyler. Great band, great comments, great casting decision.

And finally, finally, sorry this was so long. The show was long, too.