American Idol: Boston Auditions

American Idol, the phenom that helped to forever define musical milieu and cultural temperature of the aughts, returned Tuesday night for its first episode of the teens and hit the ground running in hopes of proving that the show still has legs amid steadily falling ratings, the disappearance of its worst but most car-crash-fascinating judge and, just announced this week, the end-of-season skedaddle of head judge Simon Cowell. The show shakes things up this year — Randy Jackson promises “interesting wrinkles”, quite a commitment, but one of them, of course, is Paula’s replacement, the sweet and likeable Ellen Degeneres, whose experience evaluating music mostly involves dancing in the aisles during her talk show.

Bringing in Ellen is like having Dennis Miller provide color commentary for Monday Night Football, and part of the fun this season will be in seeing if her seat at the table turns out to be the payoff the show badly needs. Ellen hasn’t arrived yet, however; Tuesday’s airing gave us highlights and humiliations from one of the show’s massive auditions, this one in Boston. Instead, an emaciated Victoria Beckham, sat in as a fourth judge, cocking an odd stare at contestants. She was a fairly good Paula stand-in, offering the same sort of sympathetic support that Paula was famous for, perhaps because both Paula and Posh suffer from the sneaking self-awareness that they themselves can’t actually sing.

I’ve heard people comment that these audition episodes are their favorite part of the whole season, but I’ve always thought the show’s focus on social misfits humiliating themselves before smirking, snickering judges was mean-spirited and embarrassing. The Boston episode offered fewer trainwreck moments that usual, thankfully, although it gave air to the likes of Pat Ford, a no-talent jokester who contorted his way through “Womanizer”, although he seemed in on the joke as the kind of clown who runs for class president just to make a farce of the speeches assembly. It’s the lamest type of audition because you can sense the kid’s awareness that one never knows when the public may get collective jollies from a new William Hung, forgetting the old adage that a man who goes for laughs by putting on a funny hat is annoying, but a man who doesn’t know his hat is funny is hilarious.

By the way, Simon seemed way nicer than usual, but he remains the only judge worth really listening to. While Randy, despite impressive insider credentials, routinely offers sage advice like, “I don’t know; that didn’t work for me”, Simon can varyingly crucify and support hopefuls just when they need it. Sophomore Kara Dioguardi is, unlike Paula, a judge to take seriously, although in Boston she seemed to be auditioning for resident asshole in anticipation of Simon’s exit, blowing up at a socially awkward Clark Kent lookalike under vague premises. Sure, the guy came off weird, but a simple “no” would have worked; instead, Kara played to the camera.

The Boston show worked hard to jerk tears and provide Olympic moments for a few kids who received the magical yellow flyers to Hollywood. Maddy Curtis, sister of four boys with Down Syndrome, three of them adopted (!), sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a nasal choir-girl voice. Simon was so sweet to her that he must have had advance scoop on her background. 16-year-old Katie Stevens belted out Etta James’s “At Last” with impressive power and control, a relief after seeing her care for Alzheimer’s-suffering grandmother. Finally, Justin Williams is a 27-year-old “vocal coach” and cancer survivor, who sang with breezy, jazzy confidence, demonstrating the kind of talent that can handle the diversity of the show’s long-run demands.

The most fun contestant, though, was a burly, gregarious Italian named Amadeo Diricco, who has a nice kitchen at home and a reasonably good voice, showcased on a growly, spirited version of “Hoochie Coochie Man”. It’s unclear if Diricco has the chops to handle a variety of styles, but the judges sent him through, after which he piled onto a rugby scrum with his brothers and friends, which nearly killed Ryan Seacrest.

The night included the traditional montage of weeping castaways for whom getting a golden ticket to the next level “meant everything”, but amid those crushed dreams were interspersed a few hopefuls to watch. Pick hits: Ashley Rodriquez, an Aaliyah look-and-sound-alike; Luke Shaffer, a red-headed New Yorker with a feathery croon; and Tyler Grady, a shaggy throwback with a Nuggets-style garage-soul shout. Next up: Wednesday night’s auditions from Atlanta featuring guest judge Mary J. Blige.