There's no mistaking that American Idol has hit a creative slump over the past few seasons: uninspiring contestants, outdated mentors, tired banter between the host and judges, and more montages than a typical Oscar telecast has entering the fourth-hour mark.
While it slammed through every scripted show since it debuted, producers have been determined to mix it up a bit each passing season. Last year, they trimmed the fat by limiting the footage of lackluster auditions (or so they said); they selected a better crop of performers (David Cook handily made closest competitor and would-be Campbell Soup kid David Archuleta look out of his league each week) and benefited by having those who could play their own instruments do so live on stage (what no triangle?). Still, it all felt the same and ratings slipped.
Because of that, producers focused on changing the show this past "Idol" off season. Why not, right? "Change" is everywhere these days. First off, they brought in a fourth judge (Kara DioGuardi), and promised, among other things, to focus more on Hollywood week rather than audition weak.
Taking all of that into account, I watched last night's season premiere as a skeptic. Good thing. The show returned to old form -- even with an extra body in the room the show feels Clay Aiken stale. The whole thing started off with, what else, a montage of the previous seven seasons and Ryan Seacrest talking up the new season and leading the intro out as he always does: "This is..." long pause... American Idol. (The tagline's got nothing on "Live from New York, It's Saturday Night.")
As it always does, "Idol" focused on quirky contestants with their "journey" to the audition. They dressed up and sang off key and all the while, producers had no problem showcasing them to clearly have them grasp their 15 minutes. Seacrest, in the routine form, appeared to call everyone "bro" and slap each contestant five after a round with the judges. At one point, the host held his hand up to slap a blind contestant five. Shockingly, the blind contestant didn't know it. It's pathetic when that's the one unpredictable thing of the two-hour episode.
As for the judges, Randy Jackson did his usual four-word vocabulary critique (although I must say he broke out some new specs for the new season); Cowell tossed up a few zingers like meatballs thrown to a clean-up hitter, and Abdul tried her hardest to stay focused - which she surprisingly did. And, while DioGuardi provided some welcomed attitude, her addition just made each audition drag even longer. I'm pretty sure we saw three auditions in the first 40 minutes.
In essence, the first episode was like the first of any year. If anything, it was worse. I can't take any more montages on why contestants think they're "the next 'American Idol'," stock B-roll of the various locations they're filming in, and the need to showcase offbeat contestants singing the same song (in this case "Wanted Dead or Alive") in a vignette that's played out more than Beyonce's "Single Ladies" video...and I like that video.
What "Idol" needed to do last night was to turn the show on its head. They should've subtracted the cheese and added some more substance. Showing contestants jump into a pool with their clothes on? Who cares honestly. And rather than simply adding a fourth judge so it'd all feel different, they should've realized the older judges (ie. Jackson, Abdul) should've been shown the door.
I realize this was just one episode, but there's a pattern here. Let's hope the show starts to focus on the good performers - not just the mentally insane. Let's hope when the series launches live, that Seacrest breaks character. Let's pray that mentors are artists who have actually had a hit on the radio this decade.
Oh, who am I kidding? No matter how hard producers try to change the show, it'll remain the same and people will watch. I will. You will. "American Idol" is empty calories that you love to consume. It's a show you watch with your brain turned off, and in an age of such complex and intellectual shows like "Mad Men" and "Lost," it's nice to watch a train wreck on your couch and enjoy the ride.
Even if that's true, the train needs to change course soon. The monotonous is getting a bit monotonous. I'm not sure I can make it to May even with DVR. Maybe I'll find me a nice flashy purple hat, and audition next year. I know I can destroy Stevie Wonder classics with the best of them.
Follow Jon Chattman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thisisasides