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Simon addresses ''Idol'' questions

At the Television Critics Association press tour, Simon Cowell addresses perceived ”Idol” meanness and Paula weirdness

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Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell
Paula Adbul and Simon Cowell: Frank Micelotta

Fox crammed lots of stuff into this final, exhausting day of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, which kind of fits since the net crams all of its hit programming into the second half of the season. (Fall=‘Til Death]; Winter=American Idol and 24.) Entertainment President Peter Liguori did the traditional ”we have a plan” speech regarding how the schizophrenic network might try to get viewers to watch anything that doesn’t involve a bat or a ball next fall: Apparently, this time around, there is much hope to be found in the fact that Fox will have only two rounds of momentum-busting baseball playoffs to air instead of the three of past years. And, Liguori said, it’s become clear that pre-baseball premiere dates (a technique perfected by The O.C. before it dropped off the planet) are the way to go.

Speaking of the once-hit teen soap, what might inherit its deathtrap of a Thursday time slot once it signs off for good in February? The lucky candidates include cooking reality show Hell’s Kitchen (which, perhaps to bolster its karma, sponsored a much-welcomed omelet station for the breakfast session), sitcom The Loop (that’s still kicking around?), and new game show (oh, good, we need one of those!) Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader? And yes, the latter tests contestants on exactly that. Meanwhile, Fox will roll out three new scripted shows in the coming months: David E. Kelley comedy The Wedding Bells, on Fridays starting March 9 (with a post-Idol preview March 7); Rob Corddry sitcom The Winner on Sundays, starting March 4; and cross-country car race drama Drive in Prison Break‘s Monday spot, starting with a two-part premiere April 15-16. Ah, just let your TiVo figure it out for you. That’s my plan.

The Losers?
Why should you watch The Winner, Corddry’s sitcom about a 32-year-old guy who’s still living with his parents? You will be — meta-alert — completing the real-life success story of creator Ricky Blitt, whose own tribulations this is loosely based on. Seriously: ”I might’ve been boasting a little before when I said I lost my virginity when I was 31,” he said, having gone above and beyond in the self-revelation department. Still not convinced? ”I hope you like this show,” co-star Lenny Bruce (Rescue Me, The Job) said, ”because it’s elderly porn for me after this.” Think about that when you’re thinking you’re a better person by watching 7th Heaven instead.

Idol Combat
Yes, its sixth season premiere just kicked the crap out of anything that has ever been or will ever be on television. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy being American Idol these days. Though Paula, Randy, and Simon all managed to show up a mere 45 minutes late (trust us, this is progress), they took some serious flak for being perceived as extra-mean to aspiring idols this time out. ”We’ve never tried to censor this show,” Simon said, acknowledging that perhaps eviscerating singers for physical shortcomings crosses the line. ”I feel more comfortable on a show where we show the warts.” Added Randy, ”People who come to auditions have to know what to expect by now.” Paula, meanwhile, tried to explain what went down in those much-YouTubed TV interviews in which she appeared to exceed even her normal loopiness quotient: Something about technical difficulties, being interviewed by two different TV stations at once, etc. The situation still wasn’t completely clear, but one thing was — Simon’s defense of his on-screen nemesis. ”We’re all a bit nuts,” he said. ”Don’t criticize people for being a bit wacky sometimes. It would be a boring show otherwise.” True enough.

Best. Year. Ever.
The Simpsons will celebrate their 400th episode in May, then bring their long-awaited film to theaters in July. Exec producer James L. Brooks promised that ”it’s the home team doing the movie,” adding that they’re aiming for a PG-13 rating. And we’ll even get an inkling of what the thing is about (producers were still pretending not to know themselves) when a full trailer hits theaters in May. They did, on the other hand, reveal what we’ll see in the landmark episode. It’ll be a two-fer: one hour a satire of 24 with guest voices from Kiefer Sutherland and Mary-Lynn Rajskub, and one hour a send-up of the FCC wars. (Other upcoming guests include Natalie Portman, Eric Idle, Andy Dick, Meg Ryan, Stephen Colbert, and Lionel Richie.) So how does it feel to be TV’s oldest living comedy? ”Sadly, some of our fans have died,” creator/exec producer Matt Groening cracked. ”But luckily new ones are being born all the time.”