'American Idol' Returns with a Vengeance

American Idol is back on! Join us as we recap this season in song-based competition.

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If you felt the ground shift beneath you last night, it wasn't an earthquake or the testing of some terrible new HAARP technology. No, it was the collective sound of millions of Americans settling into their couches, pulling snacks and drinks and emergency cellphones close and bracing themselves for another long five months of American Idol. Yes, last night America groaned and leaned into the wind as another Idol storm beset the nation. This is the show's twelfth season, so we should be used to this by now, but every year it shocks us anew. "More of this? Until May??" But we just can't seem to quit this show, and suspect some of you are in the same sad boat. So, let's talk about this thing, shall we?

The premiere began much like any Downton Abbey episode, with Ryan Seacrest bustling about, taking sheets off of furniture, dusting tables and chairs, fluffing flowers in vases. There was much to do! Randy crawled out of his koopa hole, stretching and yawning after a half-year spent dreaming of Princess Peach. Jennifer Lopez rolled over and hit the snooze button because that lady didn't have to be at work. Steven Tyler cackled as he flew across the moon, because that witch didn't have to work either. You see, J.Lo and the Tyler witch are no longer on the show. We've instead got three new judges to sit beside Randruh, and boy are they a lotta work. Well, OK, one of them, Australian country singer Keith Urban, is a complete nonentity, sitting there with his Little Darlings hairdo and occasionally clucking like an ostrich but doing little else. But the other two! Oh, the other two. One is Mariah Carey, the sometimes sorta addled-seeming diva of yesteryear who is a lot smarter than people give her credit for. The other is one Nicki Minaj, that sorta rapper sorta singer sorta jerk who sings about pink starships and whatnot. Carey and Minaj are very much on the show to be shade-throwing divas, and they deliver as is contractually obliged.

Yes, there was a lot of the much-publicized cat-fighting on last night's two-hour sprawl, but almost every ounce of it felt staged for the camera's benefit. Didn't it? Maybe it's just because I'd already heard so much about it that watching the actual thing felt like a reenactment, but I definitely got strong whiffs of playacting from all the whispered B-words (bitch, the word was bitch) and side-eyes and all that stuff. It was pretty ho-hum and boring because none of it felt organic. Maybe somewhere down the line they'll have real fights and it will be thrilling, but for now it feels like they're just doing what people expect them to be doing because we have weird views on powerful and successful women, because we are a weird country.

What was fun to watch, though, was how quickly Minaj took over the table. We weren't but three or four singtestants in before she was speaking first, directing people where to go and what to do, nixing requests to sing "Just one more song" before even elder statesman Randiah Jackson had a chance to weigh in. Nicki Minaj wants to run the show, and everyone let her. Especially Keith Urban, who was sandwiched between Carey and Minaj and kept smiling like an elf with a silly secret. "Tee hee, I know where the gummiberries are hidden! Hoo hoo!" Poor Keith Urban. Living in that chilly house of wind and glass with Nicole Kidman, who serves him soured milks and cold stones on a plate as dinner at the farm house, and when he goes to work he has to sit between Mariah and Minaj, who boss him around when they aren't ignoring him. Oh well. He just keeps smiling on, giggly little elf, thinking, I've got a secret basket of plummy-cakes! Hee hee!

So that's the lay of the land on that side of the judges table, how's about over on the scary, puddle-of-pee at the mark on the floor side? Well, this was just an initial audition episode, in New York City, so there's not too much to say about contestants yet. (And, in the interest of preserving my sanity while I write about this season of the show, I'm going to keep these initial recaps, if we're calling them that, on the shorter side.) But one thing I did notice was that these kids were treated pretty harshly! For example: There was a handsome fellow who had a nice enough voice and could strum a guitar who auditioned last night, he even brought a sad story and a prosthetic leg with him. A former dancer turned to singing because of an amputation, he seemed like perfect Idol fodder. And yet he was brusquely sent home. Dismissed without much consideration and quickly forgotten. That's cold, nü-Idol! Ice, ice cold. I'm sure Ryan was bummed by that decision too. There's little in this world that Riley Seacrest is more susceptible to than brown hair and a nice voice. But, oh well. Onward and possibly upward.

The judges also did another act of cruelty, this one very involved and thought-out. They're doing something this season where someone submits a video and says "I want my so-and-so to audition for American Songbag but they won't, so will you come ambush them with a camera crew and tell them to audition?" First up was Randiah, who traveled to Staten Island I believe, where he walked into a concert that a girl was giving for a few locals and went up on stage and said "Here's your number, you're auditioning for American Idol." So she did! Of course she did. Her mother had set up an elaborate video prank and Ranji Jackson had come all the way out on a boat — a boat! Randy Jackson on a boat! — to talk to her about it, so she had to do it. And wouldn't you think, at that point, if the Idol producers had picked you and sent the show's least-valuable (but in some ways, most-valuable) star to come collect you, that maybe, mayyybe, the preliminary audition was a mere formality? Like, of course they're gonna put you through to Hollyweird Week. They did all that work to get you to the singing chamber. Well, I'd have thought that anyway, and I suspect that Susie Staten Island did too. Except, um, nope. The judges did not give her a golden ticket. The only ticket they gave her was a ticket back home on the Staten Island ferry. Oh wellllll. Yeah, it was pretty mean, the elaborate set-up, and I'd bet that if you were that mom you'd feel pretty bad about the whole thing. Granted, the girl did totally biff her audition, but still. Still! Yikes, Idol. You guys got mean.

Well, at least they didn't parade around a cavalcade of freaks. They've blessedly eased up on that in recent seasons, and last night was pretty light on the horror shows. In fact, we saw mostly mediocre people not make it last night. That was sort of the theme of the episode. Sure we saw that weird looking nerd guy with the surprisingly silky voice go through, and there was that girl who went to Berklee and was all fancily trained who made it. But mostly it was just-OK people who had their dreams smooshed. That's most of what we saw last night. I guess they felt they had to allow room for all that Nicki Minaj/Mariah Carey character work, the only bit of which that really caught my fancy being the British accents. Oh the British accents! People are weird, America. That was the message. Even Mariah Carey, while in front of TV cameras that will broadcast her noises and image to millions of people, will slip into funny voices to entertain herself when bored. And then Nicki Minaj will copy it, because she is strange. And then Mariah Carey will get vocally upset about the copying, because she too is strange. Back and forth and back and forth like that until Keith Urban starts crying and they have to wrap him tight in his shimmery little gossamer cape and call his father, Gigglepuss, King of the Elves, to come take him home. ("No, no, not to that cold place," he cries as the car rumbles up the driveway, Nicole standing on the porch holding a potato peeler and frowning.) Randy clearly doesn't know what the h-e-doubles to do about the whole thing, so he's choosing to ignore it for right now. That's probably the right approach, Randy. As always, the hoot-monster knows just what to do: Nothing.

I think that's it for now! We're just dipping a toe in today. Warming up the old joints. Getting the flow back. Soon we'll be diving in with all these weirdos, but for now let's just take a deep breath and ready ourselves, steel ourselves for the dark adventure that awaits us. Much like Ryan does now every time he goes home. Winding up those Hollywood Hills, his collar feeling tight, stomach jittery and full of dread. He walks into the house and stands there, very still, for a moment and listens. No odd noises, nothing out of place. He sighs a breath of relief, walks upstairs to a small room at the back of the house. The door is barred and criss-crossed with chains. There is a line of chalk on the floor in front of it. Ryan stands there and, after a hesitant moment, leans in and gently knocks. "T- Tim? Tim honey? I'm home..." He waits for a response. A moment passes. Then, a low growl, an old and elemental sound. "OK, just letting you know," Ryan chirps, before quickly walking back down the hallway toward the bright part of the house. Leaving behind the thing on the other side of the door, the thing that howls and snarls from behind the bars and chains, that voraciously eats the meat that Ryan slides under the door. The thing that looks a lot like his old beloved Tim Urban, but who is, Ryan slowly figured out over the past seven months, something else entirely.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.