American Idol

Boob-tubular rubberneckers needn’t have worried about American Idol producers’ preseason insistence that the talent contest was more legit than ever. In its seventh year, they said, there would be less time devoted to bad auditions, so that audiences could get to know viable contestants earlier. Hopefuls would be allowed to play instruments during initial elimination rounds. (It’s all about the art, man.) And no one would coast to the Top 12 because gee, his hair looks terrific.

But Idol‘s two-episode premiere week boasted as many car crashes as ever. While a few were amusing or embarrassing or (depending on your perspective) offensive in the mode of William Hung, too many were obviously seeking publicity or truly unsettling. Either way, the bad-auditions gimmick epitomizes what’s best and worst about the ratings behemoth that birthed so many inferior idols and wannabes. You could laugh along with host Ryan Seacrest and judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell when someone like Milo, balding, bespectacled, and allegedly 39 (“Right,” Cowell sighed) militantly sang his self-penned “No Sex Allowed”: “My girl comes around/She’s an Oedipus Rex/She starts playing with me/All she wants is sex.” But then you could also feel bad for the guy, and guilty that you snickered, and angry about the puppetmasters’ transparent manipulation, trotting out a dude who not only lacks talent but is too old to qualify, all in the name of ratings.

Milo, at least, seemed harmless. At Tuesday’s tryouts in Philadelphia, the judges also met Paul, 32, who performed one of his own compositions. “This is a love song that I wrote for Paula Abdul,” Paul said with the laser-like stare of a serial killer. and with that he serenaded Abdul with lyrics about breaking into her house and trying on her underwear. “Oh my God, it’s scaring me,” she said, even before he began. But after Paul finished his ode to stalking, coming closer and closer to the judge’s table the whole time, the object of his obsession stupidly squeaked, “Thank you so much!” Cowell, at least, had the sense to say, “There’s something very disturbing about you.”

This understatement also applied to Brandon, a 21-year-old who showed off his bag of fingernails in Wednesday’s Dallas episode. And Douglas, a chubby 27-year-old who circled the audition room, moaning and muttering after being turned down because he insisted he just needed to warm up a little more. He had to be escorted out. “They’re taking you to a safe place,” Cowell said.

Are you not entertained?

Mercifully, Cowell continued to be the show’s most reliable source of professionalism, occasionally — if not often enough — putting a swift end to absurd auditions, such as the guy who walked in draped in a cloak, dropping it to reveal a belly dancer’s costume. (The guy was allowed to return: Abdul said she was too distracted by his chest hair to listen to him sing, so he got it waxed.) And for every few Cowell critiques that were funny but cruel (“You know what, it’s exactly identical to a nightmare I had last week,” he said after a screechy rendition of “Feeling Good”), he showed a more compassionate side, passing through a contestant or two who weren’t quite as talented as they were earnest (“Kayla, I want to be you for one hour a day. You’re so happy, aren’t you?” he asked the 24-year-old car-crash survivor before sending her to Hollywood.) He even gave someone a hug.

For the most part, though, the first two episodes of Idol (each two hours, with plenty of meet-your-contestants filler) suggested that the season would be business as usual. You knew, for example, that the 23-year-old blonde who lives in a log cabin would make it through, as well as Drew, the young farmer who uses words like “rascals.” And there were the montages: of bad singers, naturally, and of each city’s chosen song that every contestant has to warble. The transvestite sequence? Considering that not one of the cross-dressers — save the belly-dancer — was shown giving a full audition, I’d say it put another notch in the Idol-goes-too-far column.

Sometime between all the circus acts, the show did offer up a few impressive tryouts. And the judges said yes to 29 singers in Philly and 24 in Dallas (one from Burleson, Texas, Kelly Clarkson’s hometown, as we were reminded more than once.) Most fit of these into one of three predetermined popular categories: innocent, big-voiced country girls; sassy, big-voiced African Americans of either gender; and borderline-nerdy boys who can belt blue-eyed soul. With first-week ratings already down — even in the midst of the writers’ strike — American Idol may have to do more than let contestants bring their guitars to bring back viewers.

RATING 5 / 10